Future as food producer lies with old ways

18 June 1999

Mixed fortunes for bid to raise bird numbers

MAFFS pilot Arable Steward-ship Scheme – aimed at getting wildlife back on to arable land – has had a mixed first year.

A range of farm types in the pilot area, covering parts of Suffolk, Essex and Cambs, are taking part in the scheme which was launched in response to concern over the decline in farmland bird numbers.

The joint budget for the three-year East Anglian project and a similar pilot scheme in the West Midlands is £7.5m.

The pilot arable scheme is targeted solely at enhancing habitat in cropped areas and the payments of up to £750/ha (£1852 acre) have led to the scheme being over-subscribed in its first year.

And MAFF expects a similar response for the second year of the schemes five-year agreements which support a range of options supporting wildlife.

Among the successful bids in the opening round were Dalham Farms, near Newmarket, a mixed 750ha (1850 acre) unit and Wales End Farm, Cavendish, near Sudbury, 285ha (700 acre) holding growing only wheat.

James Philipps who runs Dalham Farms said: "Intensive arable farming generally has taken a toll on wildlife and I saw Arable Stewardship as an opportunity to put something back," he said.

Under the scheme he has created grass margins, two cross-field beetle banks, some conservation headlands and winter stubbles.

In addition, 6ha (15 acres) of the stubble were lightly cultivated in March to create an area of spring and summer fallow suitable for ground-nesting birds.

There are also some "zero summer insecticide" headlands aimed at encouraging a build-up of beneficial insects to help crop protection and provide food for young birds.

"The wet autumn last year meant the majority of the grass strips have been spring drilled so the benefits for nesting birds have yet to materialise," Mr Philipps said.

The beetle banks were well established and the grass strips were not only helping wildlife they were proving to be a barrier to cleavers and other weeds.

"I dont think the scheme has impinged on our commercial activity at all and I hope to see it extended across the whole country," he added.

Wales End Farm at Cavendish is managed by Bryan Harvey who said that he thought set-aside would eventually be phased out and the Arable Stewardship approach was likely to be more beneficial for wildlife.

Many of the initiatives taken appear to be working but because the land was so wet during March, cultivations needed to create a spring and summer fallow could not go ahead.

"We tried discing the land but it was still really too wet and by then black grass and other weeds were starting to get widely established," Mr Harvey said.

The result is a fallow riddled with large clods of clay and not at all the kind of false seedbed habitat at which the option was aimed.

"There must be limitations for this particular option on a heavy land farm. I cant see it is going to work," Mr Harvey said. &#42

Water users need to pull

USE of water resources in "dry" East Anglia should no longer be seen in terms of farmers versus the environment, according to the chairman of a new group.

Tim Jolly, who farms at Roudham in Norfolks Breckland, is heavily dependent on irrigation to produce high quality crops. He says it is time for a more constructive way forward.

"Conflict is not going to get us anywhere and we need to move on," said Mr Jolly who is chairman of the newly-formed Thet Water Resources Group for the catchment area of the local Thet river.

Abstraction licences

Like many other light land farmers in East Anglia, he is concerned about the potential impact of tightening abstraction licences to protect rivers and wetlands important for wildlife.

Mr Jolly, who grows asparagus, potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, sugar beet and cereals, said under restrictions imposed on his own licences he could be left short of water one year out of every five.

As a result, he was having to consider building a reservoir, which would involve substantial investment. Yet the development would not be needed in at least eight out of every 10 years and he would prefer another solution.

"It should be possible to devise regimes that provide more security for abstractors," Mr Jolly said.

He believes there is enough water for both farmers and the environment if sensible compromises are made on both sides.

"I would like to re-focus the discussion in terms of farmers working in partnership with others to create the correct balance between the needs of the environment and the legitimate needs of abstractors," he said.

I am convinced that by discussing problems with the Environment Agency, English Nature and other conservation organisations we can give everyone what they want at the end of the day. We must have a dialogue."

Agency assurances

He welcomed Environment Agency assurances that consultations over the use of water resources would be widened – especially in view of a recent incident when discussions over water management at a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest had not included 20 local irrigators.

Mr Jolly, whose family owns 385ha (950 acres) of arable land and rents a further 130ha (318 acres), said the new group presently consists only of irrigators but the intention is to open it up to all water users. &#42

Obstacles are still blocking route to organic conversion

LIKE the rest of his generation, Simon Winter was trained to farm conventionally with the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers and with a zero-tolerance attitude to weeds.

But with the fall in value of everything he and his father, Eddie, produce on their 153ha (380 acre) farm at Denton on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, the pair are having to look closely at the organic option.

For Simon who studied at Writtle Agricultural College in Essex, such a change would represent a culture shock.

But with falling income and little prospect for a change in fortunes, the Winters are having to think seriously about the farms future.

Selling their 45-head farm assured suckler beef herd is one option but both father and son have been brought up with a mixed farming system and, having held on during the price plunge following the BSE crisis, would be reluctant to part company now.

The main option they are considering is to turn organic – a move which would return Eddie who is now 68, to the kind of farming with which he grew up in the 1940s and 50s.

Simon, however, has no experience of working in such a regime although, like his father, he has always been keen to produce not only wholesome food but food which people want to buy.

"There does not seem to be a demand for much of what we produce at the moment. Wed like to produce food that people want and going organic could help us to do this and prove a more satisfying way to farm," he said.

The farm includes 110ha (270 acres) of arable and poultry units which produce more than 18,000 turkeys a year.

If there was a change to organic free-range, more of the arable land would be needed for pasture, movable turkey sheds would have to be purchased and there would be pressure to build an on-farm processing plant – to take advantage of the best premium prices.

The organic beef premium is attractive but Simon is worried about the drop in grass production as a result of cutting all of the artificial fertilisers.

While higher prices for arable crops could be obtained, there would be the need to invest in new machinery and plant, arrange extra manpower and find new markets.

Simon and Eddie, who both completed a six-day organic conversion course at Otley College, near Ipswich, believe there are too few sources of good independent guidance for farmers interested in organics and help in choosing the right certifying organisation. &#42

Pig units pose pollution risk

OUTDOOR pig units pose major pollution and soil erosion risks in some areas of East Anglia, according to the Environment Agency.

Intensive indoor units are regarded as having the greatest potential for pollution while outdoor units have been considered to be environmentally friendly.

But the agency says there is increasing evidence that outdoor pigs can cause pollution and that it could be much harder to contain.

Units where land is continuously used for pigs is unable to absorb the nutrients in the waste they produce and there is increasing evidence that waterways are being polluted by run-off, says Alan Barnden, regional freshwater officer in the agencys Anglian region.

"When pigs go onto a field they very quickly destroy all the green cover which means there is nothing growing to require any nutrients," he says.

Pig muck contains nitrogen and phosphorous and this builds up over a period of time. "So if you do not rotate the outdoor pig land on a regular basis you get an excess of nutrients which can only end up causing pollution," Mr Barnden warns.

Another problem is erosion. "Because there are no roots to bind the soil, if the unit is sited in the wrong place you can get severe run-off and soil erosion leading to river siltation and blocking of roads." &#42

Future as food producer lies with old ways

DIVERSIFICATION may be the answer for some, but others hope that the key to the future still lies in an intensive farming system.

Like many farmers in East Anglia, Robert Alston who farms at Park Farm near Wymondham in Norfolk, is convinced that his future is as a food producer, not with diversification projects or agri-environmental schemes.

And despite the realities of falling farm incomes, he remains upbeat about the future of farming in the region.

In the past three years he has expanded his farm from 245ha (600 acres) to nearly 445ha (1100 acres) and hopes that by building on the existing strengths of the farm and concentrating on attention to detail his future will be bright.

"We are concentrating on what we know we are good at and what we know there is a market for," he said.

"I intend to optimise what I do have and get more intensive on the acres I have got.

"Its about producing to the best of your ability. There is a lot said about cost cutting today and it is extremely important. But it is only worth cost cutting if you are at an optimum. You can save £5 an acre on spray costs but that is no good if you are losing half a tonne of yield."

Difficult times means that he has made some changes, in particular to his cropping policy, with potatoes becoming increasingly important in his rotation. He explains this move as being fuelled by market conditions and a desire to move away from cereals and IACS cheque reliance.

But he admits that equally crucial is his approach to marketing. Potatoes and malting barley are sold through marketing groups which he believes gives him strength in a very competitive area. &#42

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