Friday, 11 October 2013

The Blind Leading the Blind


The greatest thing about the Horsch CO8 seed drill is the amount of air between the tines. It's rather like looking under the bonnet of my old farm mechanic's Morris van: lots of space to work and it all looks so simple. 

If you get a blocked coulter on the Horsch, there is enough room for a well built man to thread himself through the tines to the middle section and do his work without too much discomfort. As far as simplicity is concerned, the Horsch makes an egg whisk look complicated. There is no dallying with closely packed discs, all independently sprung and leaving a gnats breath between them, not a bit of it. The Horsch is essentially a sparsely shod cultivator with some tubes loosely attached to the back of it's tines spaced generously at twenty five centimeters with a boot at the bottom out of which the seed Is liberally sprayed. 

Aside from the thousands of tyres at the back of the drill used for consolidation, if a young leveret managed to avoid the Case Quadtrac's thunderous tracks, he could easily wander through the working machine without parting a hair, whereas any other drill on the market would see him sliced and diced. This life saving ability also allows the drill to cope with any amount of trash that we farmers can throw at it. When a little bit over overnight rain has kept other drills in the farm yard, the Horsch has been working since six o'clock in the morning with another hundred acres under its belt.

So why haven't we all got one?

Two words: seed placement. Another two words: It's crap.

With many of our tractors steering themselves these days we all have a huge amount of time to look out of the rear window of our metal horse to get a proper look at what we are actually doing. In the good old days of steering wheel caressing you normally saw what had happened during your last bout when you turned around at the end of the field, but with RTK steering our tractor, I have spent many long autumn afternoons looking at the leading tines of the Horsch diving in and out of the seedbed with alarming imprecision. Unless you have achieved a seedbed that would satisfy an onion grower, the Horsch's construction will never enable it to place seeds at an even depth, but what is the problem if an acceptable percentage of the seed comes up in the end?

This is the argument that I have always applied. You might have had to put your seed rates up to compensate for the seeds that the drill had put beyond Hades, but what it costs in extra seed is outweighed in the sheer hectares per hour you can achieve in all weather conditions and in any amounts of trash saving time and sowing costs. That was all fine until this year when we tried blind weeding.

Although blind weeding is common practice on organic farms in many countries, we have never tried it here as historically we have relied on post emergence methods of weed control. It wasn't until an introduction to a young Swede, Joel Massön, who came to see me last summer and extolled the virtues of the technique, that I considered attempting the method. Joel rightly likened our weeding programme to dealing with the problem after the horse had bolted, and he had a point.

Essentially blind weeding relies on weeds emerging before the crop, and this year due to dry weather when my bête noire black-grass was flowering, mean’t that the shed seed would not be dormant and so a good kill might be possible at sowing time. Black-grass generally germinates at one to two centimeters depth and should emerge quickly in a warm seedbed, while wheat sown at one and a half inches should emerge a few days later  leaving you a small window to harrow, or blind weed the back-grass at it’s most vulnerable without damaging the crop.

Timing is everything and so an extra tactic has to be employed. Using a cloche placed on the seedbed straight after you have sown your crop you can predict a day or so before the weeds will emerge, making it easier to kill them before they have a chance to put down proper roots or even see the light of day. 

It was exactly a week after we started sowing our wheat when it all started to kick off. I had been keenly inspecting the cloche on a daily basis which was strategically placed as soon as the field had been sown, when on the seventh day I saw the first blades of black-grass emerging through the artificially heated soil. Scrabbling down into the dirt I found that the wheat had just germinated and had a shoot on it about one centimeter long. Perfect. 

The harrow comb weeder was immediately summoned and after a few adjustments to the rake of the tines we were bravely weeding at twelve kilometers an hour. I hung around in the field nervously for a few minutes feeling slightly under confident about my decision, seeing my beautifully rolled fields being pulled up again. The theory was right, but it looked so wrong, never mind the fact that at that speed with a twelve meter machine you can do an awful amount of damage in a morning.

That night was sleepless. I had visions of thousands of wheat shoots lying mangled in the dry soil with the exhausted seed disgustedly withdrawing it's roots in protest and submitting itself to the inevitable slug. I could hear my seed merchant sniggering into his coffee at the end of the phone as I placed a new seed order to repair my foolish mistake. 

The next morning I sheepishly ventured into the fields that we had decimated the previous day and to my huge relief I discovered that my nightmare had not been realised. The wheat was still growing strongly and I could easily find evidence of weed seedlings lying lifeless in the soil or drying out in the September sun. Joy of joys, it had been a huge success!

However, on closer examination I noticed something else. I could also find wheat seeds that the Horsch had sown at one to two centimeters that although had not yet germinated had been upheaved by the harrow comb and were now too close to the soil surface for comfort. The weakness of the Horsch was laid bare for all to see: horribly inaccurate seed placement. 

In my experience the Horsch places around fifty percent of the seed at the required inch and a half, but the remainder is spread shallowly above the moisture needed for germination, or buried to such a depth that not even the most vigorous seed could ever produce a shoot to see the light of day. All fine if accurate seed placement is not the be all and end all, but as far as this weeding technique is concerned, accurate seed placement is essential.

So, where do I go from here? The plan is to do some plant and weed counts on the fields that we have blind weeded and compare those results with the occasional strips we left unweeded in the fields as a comparison. A further test of the blind weeding will be performed later this month when we sow our winter beans which could be more interesting as the beans are sown at a depth which should, weather permitting, allow a much bigger window for the practice. 

Blind weeding makes complete sense to any farming system where black-grass is a problem, and if it is the success that I think that it could be we may be looking at a new drill. 

For the National Farmers Union Website - October 2013

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Just say NO to neonicotinoids


The first time I used a neonicotinoid on the farm was when British Sugar offered sugar beet seed with a seed dressing called Gaucho which contained imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid. It was a bit of a revolution as far as I was concerned because the threat of Virus Yellows carried by Myzus Persicae or the Peach Potato aphid hovered over our beet crop in it’s early growth stages and an infection could result in serious damage to the crop’s yield potential. 

The solution before Gaucho was usually a succession of early forays before bees were foraging into my beet fields with the sprayer and an insecticide to deal with the problem, or even a dusk spray if early morning bright sunlight or frost mean’t that the spraying in the morning might risk damage to the young beet leaves, but also avoiding bees at work.

With Gaucho all those unsociable hours could be avoided by having the seed ordered with the neonicotinoid dressing and to top it all, because Gaucho was a seed dressing and not a spray, bees were now protected from any spraying which might have formerly strayed into foraging hours. Result! Or was it?

I do remember having a conversation with my agronomist at the time about how the neonicotinoid worked and he told me that when the aphid fed on the sugar beet plant it also took up some of the chemical which disorientated it and made it stop feeding. By stopping the feeding it then prevented the aphid from transmitting the virus and hey presto, no Virus Yellows. As the plant grew the chemical remained in the plant which continued to offer protection. At the time I was entirely focused on the positive (or should that be negative) effect that this wonder drug had on the aphid, but I didn’t for one minute think about what effect that the chemical was having on other insects visiting my crop. It’s this unbalanced focus that affects many of us farmers when we are endeavoring to get all the jobs done that we have to do in a day and we often fail to see the wider consequences of our actions until someone from outside of our industry points them. When that happens we usually throw our toys out of the pram feigning doom and gloom for the future of farming. 

That is where we are now with the proposed two year ban on neonicotinoids.

For me, when the whole neonicotinoid verses bee debate kicked off what my agronomist had said to me all those years before about the aphid on my sugar beet plant becoming disorientated rang alarm bells especially with the escalation in the chemical’s use since my sugar beet growing days. I’ve since listened to both sides of the debate, to all the convenient scientific arguments depending on who you are batting for and have come to the conclusion that all farmers should come to given our knowledge of how the chemical works. Neonicotinoids must be having an effect on our bees as well as other pollinators. My conclusion is not science based, it’s common sense based.

I applaud supermarkets and garden centres who have said; we don’t know if there is an issue here or not, but until we know that there isn’t a problem with neonicotinoids then we don’t want to be associated with the product. 

I feel that we as farmers have missed a massive public relations trick here. Instead of hiding behind the doom and gloomsters who apparently speak on our behalf in the press and media who have warned of impending yield losses and even more environmental destruction we should be standing up and taking a leaf out of the supermarkets and garden centres book and we too should be saying No to neonicotinoids.

By the nature of our ever changing job we farmers have always had to be incredibly resourceful. In my farming career I have managed to overcome various challenges; farming more land with half the amount of labour and machinery, overcoming the straw burning ban with a different approach to straw incorporation and weed control, addressing the decline in farmland wildlife species with the help of environmental schemes and more recently as an organic farmer bringing in as much diversity into my rotation to mitigate against climate change as well as naturally finding ways of addressing pests and diseases and ultimately rounding my nutrient cycle by providing the major elements for crop growth with the reintroduction of livestock onto the farm. 

Every farmer has a different story to tell and it’s usually more impressive than mine.

My point is that the banning of neonicotinoids does not necessarily mean more cost to farmers, loss of yield or more environmental damage but it will mean that we will have to think about solutions for ourselves rather than waiting for someone to provide them for us. Increasingly the concept of crop husbandry is being wrestled from our grasp by agronomists and agrochemical companies. We are becoming fearful and under confident of our own abilities resulting in us all running around like headless chickens every time a chemical ban is threatened.

We have always been a diverse and inventive industry and we should have the confidence to find solutions for ourselves and if saying No to neonicotinoids means that we gain more customers, achieve more resourceful farming community and save our bees along the way, everyone is a winner. 

For the National Farmer’s Union website

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Environmental Evolution


The first environmental scheme we undertook was way back in the dark ages with a pilot scheme called Arable Stewardship. If my memory serves me well it was trialled in two areas of the country, East Anglia being one and somewhere in the West for the other and it was the scheme that spawned what we now know as Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).

Since then we have been in ELS, the organic version OELS, and now as of this February we have entered into our second OELS agreement topped up with Higher Level Stewardship (HLS).  

As the HLS scheme is competitive to ensure that we came up with an application that was attractive, we and various advisors spent considerable time researching not only the farm's historical story, but also what it has to offer as far as existing wildlife is concerned to determine how we can build on and preserve that inherited base. Without going into too much detail the agreement focuses on four main areas: farmland birds, wood pasture restoration, the reintroduction of livestock and educational access.

Key options selected for farmland birds include grass margins, field corner management, cultivated stubbles and a large area of pollen and nectar mix. With the changes in the scheme’s options after 1st January 2013 I was able to use the pollen and nectar option on larger areas than previously allowed. Being an essentially stockless arable farmer the leguminous element of the mix enabled me to use it for a dual purpose, providing food for the lower elements of the food chain as well as under-sowing it in cereal crops to improve fertility in my organic rotation.

I did have some fairly lively debates with my project officer about wether or not a large area of pollen and nectar was conducive to providing worthwhile public goods. My argument went as follows:

On the heavy clay lands of south west Suffolk there is a huge lack of any over-wintered stubbles, those important sources of over-wintered food for farmland birds. This is due to the fact that trying to achieve a spring seedbed without having ploughed before Christmas to get some decent frost action on our "loving” clay soil (once it's stuck on you, it doesn't want to let go) it is pretty impossible to do so without doing a huge amount of potentially soil damaging cultivations. However, through the under-sowing of legumes for our fertility building we have around 110 hectares of over wintered stubble every year.

In fact, one fifth of the farm is under-sown with red clover which provides two major elements as far as the farm’s wildlife is concerned, over-winter feed for birds through the gleaning of cereal and weed seeds left by the combine harvester and from our run-down plants in our weeding tram-lines and then subsequently pollen and nectar from the legumes flowers. Our farm is an oasis in this respect sitting in the middle of some of the most intensively managed land in Suffolk, and we are going to improve what we do even more by no longer sowing just red clover. The plan is now to sow all our fertility building areas with a pollen and nectar mix to maximise their environmental potential which will be predominantly unfunded by the scheme.

As far as addressing the historical and archeological element of our application we are restoring two moated sites which would have been the entrances to the medieval deer park which was Shimpling Park. Recognising those entrances lead me into researching more about where the boundaries of the park were in medieval times and how it has changed since. This meant looking for wood banks, pollarded trees and pouring over as many historical maps as possible searching for boundary suggestions. My search took me to the National Archives at Kew as the farm had at one time been part of the Crown Estate where I found many clues as to where the park was. My most exciting find was a huge estate map of the farm on vellum with subtle colouring of the different land uses and also the then field names many of which still exist today. Interestingly the part of the farm that is Shimpling Park Farm is pretty much the area of the whole park then, meaning that it is likely that it’s entirety has remained in single occupancy for hundreds of years. While I have no immediate intention to try and recreate the whole of the park, we are under HLS going to restore 25 hectares of wood pasture which will also be the catalyst for the reintroduction of livestock onto the farm and the start of my journey to return to a mixed farm enterprise.

The really fun part of our HLS application has been the educational access part of our scheme. Since becoming organic we have had numerous requests to do farm walks which have become a major highlight of what we do. While I take around groups of adults be they farmers, locals or other interested groups, my wife Alice has been hosting increasing amounts of school visits. With no suitable indoor area to teach the children we have had to confine most of those visits to when the weather is likely to be fine. That will all change now with an amount of money we have been given through HLS that will help us convert one of our redundant farm buildings into a classroom with loos and washing facilities. As I write building has stared, and although the farm yard has been turned into a hard hat area, it is incredibly exciting to see redundant farm buildings being brought back to life with the expectation of hoards of young interested minds who we can share our farming story with.

Do you know what, it really is an exciting time to be a.....I was going to say a farmer, but we are so much more than that now, aren't we?

For the National Farmer Union’s website




Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Buy local and make sure that it is organic


One of the reasons why I converted to organic production was because I felt unable to guarantee that the food leaving my farm was completely safe. To have given the buyer of a tonne of milling wheat that left my stores with all the possibilities of contaminants that I had applied to the crop during my tender I would have had to have given them a declaration that went something like this;

“This product could contain glyphosate, prothioconazole, metaldehyde, isoproturon, trifluralin, diflufenican, cypermethrin, chlormequat, iodosulfuron-methyl-sodium, mesosulfuron-methyl, boscalid, epoxiconazole, urea, ammonium nitrate, chlorothalonil, proquinazid, pyraclostrobin, chlorpyrifos”.

Now I am not remotely suggesting that the cocktail above is dangerous to human health or our environment, perish the thought, but to tell the whole story of how food was produced on my farm I would have had to included all the potential additives that could be present, and I as a son of the soil and not an advanced chemist felt unable to stand by my sale any more and with my hand on my heart and say, “It’s all fine.”

I am one of those who would also like to know if what I am eating contains genetically modified organisms. Not because I that think that by eating it I will keel over and die because I am going to be eaten inside-out by some Frankensein mutant worm tunneling through my stomach, but as someone who is sceptical about the financial benefits and the technology's environmental performance I would like products containing GMOs to be labeled so that I can make a choice of wether to buy or not.

I fear that increasingly I will not be the only more discerning customer in my local high street or supermarket.  

With the current debacle over horse meat in beef products scandal I can’t help feeling that certainly us supermarket frequenters are going to want a little more clarity about what goes on in our food chain. We certainly can’t depend on our toothless Food Standards Agency any more. 

The cost of cheap food has become painfully apparent, and although there will be plenty of punters out there who will buy the most expensive camera they can afford and then buy the cheapest “value” chicken on offer in Tescos, more and more of us are going to want to invest in better quality food, sold to us by someone we can trust and who can help us understand it’s journey from field to fork. That journey should be simple and as short as possible.

The organic story on this farm is very simple. We don’t use any artificial fertilisers to grow our wheat, instead we use green manures, compost and farmyard manure to build long term fertility ensuring that our soil will continue to serve us for generations to come. Neither do we use a cocktail of chemicals to control insects, funguses and weeds as we find that careful choice of rotation, a mixture of autumn and spring crops, disease resistant varieties will ensure a yearly harvest. We plant the seed and tend it in a natural way, farming with nature, not waging war against it. All farmers understand that nature will have it’s way, so why fight it?

The checks and balances in an organic arable combinable crop system go far beyond any assurance scheme that any of my non-organic neighbours have to endure. Balance sheets of all products coming in and out of the farm have to be produced and physically accounted for. Detailed rotation plans for three years in advance are checked for integrity and long term sustainability, the list goes on. In fact, getting a non-compliance through the rigorous inspection is like trying to persuade an organic certifier that the livestock in Lower Meadow are a herd of cattle and not what they look like which is a herd of ponies. You just wouldn’t do it, would you?

So while the supermarkets shuffle, blame and re-stock, you would do better to buy your weekly groceries from your local supplier with farmer connections and if you really want to make sure that it is safe, buy organic.

For the National Farmers Union Website - February 2012

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Relax rules on home saved seed to save organic farmers


I know that getting seed for all autumn drilling farmers has been particularly testing this year, but for us organic farmers it has been near on impossible. Fusarium levels in nearly all organic cereals has had levels of the disease that you just wouldn't plant at and although we are told that if infected seed goes into a warm seedbed and can get away quickly, then the disease should have little or no effect. As I have been desperately trying to delay drilling trying not to encourage autumn fungal/insect attacks and also to get as much weed life to germinate so that it can be cultivated out, with the nights drawing in and the weather turning wet and colder the hope of that kind of seedbed is nigh on impossible.

As organic farmers we are able to get a derogation from our certification bodies to use non-organic re-cleaned seed if no organic seed is available or we can provide a good agronomic reason why the non-organic variety we want to grow is superior than the organic varieties available. The problem this year is not only has there not been any organic seed available, non-organic seed from harvest 2012 has had higher levels of fusarium in it than organic seed. 

To try and get over the problem I spent a couple of days ringing around all the seed companies I could think of trying to find any seed that had been carried over from harvest 2011 which would hopefully have a different disease profile and thankfully I have now got 90% of my seed in the barn.

But how do our certification bodies know if when requested for a derogation by Mr Organic Farmer to use non-organic seed that there is no organic seed available?

The information is found on a website called OrganicXseeds where all the organic seed suppliers list their wares and it is where the organic certifiers look as soon as a request rolls onto their desk. The website is only supposed to list seed that the suppliers physically have in stock and was set up specifically to aid seed derogations, but alas the site has been abused.

The organic seed suppliers hate derogations because it does enable farmers to buy non-organic seed rather than their organic seed when no organic seed is available and I can understand their gripe. Considerable time and money is spent by these companies securing varieties and conducting expensive trial work with varieties that would in the eyes of the seed producer foil any request for a derogation on agronomic grounds but an organic farmer is able to get a derogation if the seed is not available at the time that he or she needs to sow it.

To counteract the derogation what has been happening and still is happening even though complaints have been made to the Soil Association who are funded to run OrganicXseeds, is that seed suppliers are listing seed that they think that they are going to have, not actual seed in stock, meaning that it is almost impossible to get a derogation.

Even before harvest started I was fully aware of the amount of fusarium and indeed yellow rust in the ears of nearly all my wheats. I usually like to save some of my own seed in the name of cash flow, less food miles and attempting to achieve a closed farming system, but by the end of July I knew that we would be incredibly lucky to be saving any seed from our own farm.

Looking on the OragnicXseeds website there was of course a plethora of seed available from harvest 2012 even though not a single ear had been cut. When I rang and challenged  some of the advertisers that they were misusing the website and that they ought to go and have a look at their seed crops to see that there was little hope that they would be disease free, I was assured that seed would be available even though they did not physically have it at the time.

In early August I rang my certification body to ask if I could start ordering non-organic seed  and I was told that unless I wanted to sow the seed right now I would have to wait until nearer the time to see what organic seed was available. I have always been a fan of early drilling, but even I know that sowing winter wheat that early is folly.

So began the torturous wait as day by day the small parcels of disease free non-organic stocks we snapped up and gradually one by one the organic seed suppliers confirmed all my suspicions; they had no seed.

A meeting was hastily arranged at the Soil Association to try and solve the problem which was attended by Ruth Mason - Food Chain Advisor for the National Farmers Union and I and the great and the good of the organic seed industry but nothing could be done.

That was September, it’s now October.

I write this blog on my loader waiting to refill the seed drill with winter wheat seed and we are now onto our last few days of cereal drilling. I did manage to get enough seed through perseverance and with the huge help of non-organic and organic suppliers, but how do we prevent this crisis happening again?

Certainly OrganicXseeds needs policing much more diligently by the Soil Association but also should be frequently spot checked by all the certification bodies to ensure that their farmers and growers are being given the correct information. 

But there is another possible way forward and ticks all “organic” boxes in the name of food miles, farmer to farmer cooperation and the aspiration to plant one hundred percent organic seed.

In the midst of this whole debacle an organic farming friend announced that he had eighty tonnes of Herewood wheat still sitting in his grain store from harvest 2011; organic, no fusarium, good germination and as local as any other seed supply. It seemed the perfect solution! Arrange for a lorry to pick up 29 tonnes of the stuff, get a seed cleaning company in, pay the royalty and bingo, everyone is quids in.

Well, nearly everyone.

The only people cut out of the deal would be the seed producers which is not good. At a time when so little money is put into organic research and development we desperately need those seed producers who do that important trial work and support the organic industry.

The other major hurdle is that trading farm saved seed between farmers is entirely forbidden to protect those seed producers, but maybe there should be an EU derogation to allow this to happen in exceptional circumstances. 

A possible solution might be that the law could be changed to allow farmer to farmer trading with the seed producer in the middle ensuring that correct seed standards were maintained i.e germination, disease levels etc. and organising the seed royalty to be paid to the correct breeder. The measure would only kick in if a situation arose like the one we have had this year.

With only four or five organic seed producers in the UK I think we leave ourselves too exposed to this situation happening again. To do nothing in light of the amount of non-organic seed that will have been used this year is not good for organics, farmers or organic seed producers. We need to address it.

For the National Farmers Union website


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Poor Harvest Focuses The Mind

Wow, harvest 2012, what a shocker! 

All the signs were there earlier in the season that it was going to be a bad one. A relatively mild winter, a drought in early spring followed by a cold wet April and then a wet, cloudy early summer, not a great recipe for a bountiful organic harvest. Not that most of my wheats had much flag leaf left on them to benefit from the anticipated sunny grain filling period, neither had my beans which had started defoliating earlier than ever before. April had put pay to any green leaf area with the worst levels of yellow rust and chocolate spot I have ever seen. While organic livestock farmers are able to dip into the conventional medicine chest to alleviate their animals suffering, my poor organic crops are not allowed the same respite.

Although a lot of what happened in last years growing season was beyond my control, I could be accused of farming organically with a conventional farmers head on in the name of profit with the resultant pitfalls. Even though you should never farm for the harvest that has just gone there are lessons to be learnt and inevitably systems to change. 

With an arsenal of chemicals to control grass weeds, virus spreading insects and early fungal attacks it is possible and in fact preferable in terms of yield to drill in early September, but if you do not have that equipment, time will gradually deal you fields that are akin to a hay meadow rather than a cereal crop. The daughter of my harvesting contractor driving one of the grain trailers described the straw coming out of the back of her father's combine as "fluffy straw"...... I feel a black-grass straw marketing idea coming on......

Sowing cereals in September organically is just asking for trouble, in fact sowing before the middle of October is risky. 

NIAB/TAG have being doing trial work over the last few years on winter bean sowing dates showing that there are considerable yield advantages to sowing beans in late September early October. With several hundred acres of beans to sow on this farm every year it is always tempting to get on with the work on my heavy soils as soon as we have finished drilling the cereals. 

We have had some really good yields sowing beans in the early part of October but the two disastrous years (harvest 2012 was one of them) puts a big tick in the Don't Do It box from now on. 

I have always tried to avoid too much spring sowing on this farm as the yields are usually lower and you don't want to be messing around on heavy soil in a wet March, but some spring drilling has advantages. Firstly it spreads the workload enabling you to risk later drilling in the autumn and possibly most importantly it allows you to get on top of mainly winter germinating grass weeds like wild oats and black-grass and gives you a different disease profile to autumn sown crops.

A bit more spring drilling is now in the rotation plan.

Organic Seed Producers have had an organic winter cereal trial on my farm for the last two years and what was outstanding in the trail this year was how well oats and triticale did in terms of yields and disease resistance compared to my wheat and barley. Not only that, because they are invariably double the height of other cereals they did a superb job of smothering grass and broad leaved weeds. My concentration on what the market wants in East Anglia for non-ruminant feed has selected some pretty nitrogen demanding and short weed producing crops and that is all very well if you are getting consistently good yields, but as soon as your weed burden starts to erode those possibilities it's time to check what you are doing. 

I need to be more diverse in my cropping using the different characteristics of a range of cereals to improve the agronomy on the farm, but as importantly I need more eggs in more baskets.

So what about the things that are beyond my control, or are they?

At Wakelyns Farm near Fressingfield in Suffolk the Organic Research Centre (ORC) have been trailing wheat "composite cross populations". It's best to go on the website http://www.organicresearchcentre.com to find out what the real nature of these populations are but they are essentially up to twenty different wheat varieties all with different agronomic characteristics which have been crossed with each other meaning that no single plant is the same as it's neighbour. In fact it is claimed that no single plant is the same as any other wheat plant in the field! 

Trials that ORC have done show that although the populations are not the highest yielding they are also not the lowest and in fact produce a consistent average yield. The secret is the diversity in the field having plants that perform differently under similar disease pressure situations unlike a varietal monoculture where all the plants do the same which is great in years of low disease pressure but a potential failure in a year that is not. Populations might not be the barn filler you are looking for but at least you will have something in the barn come harvest time.

A simple alternative to cross populations that could be tried by all farmers certainly for the animal feed market where variety is not specified, would be to sow a known blend of varieties. Although the genetic diversity would be far less compared to the ORC populations, it might be enough to buffer against a single variety going down with a disease and possibly lessen the impact of disease with susceptible varieties being further apart in the field minimising cross contamination.

The beneficial effect of less crowding of single varieties could also be used in different crops which could be separated after harvest across a gravity separator or by screening. Wheat and beans or barley and peas for example.

The general point is I need more diversity in my farming system to buffer against any crop failing, being it failing on yield, disease, weed suppression or fertility.

So it's onwards and upwards for harvest 2013.....that's if I can get hold of any organic seed with acceptable levels of fusarium in it, but that's another story.

For the National Farmers Union website

Saturday, 18 August 2012

There's Nobody on the Farm These Days


The biography at the top of this blog* says that I have "two full time staff" suggesting that I manage to farm this amount of land land with me and my two farm men David and Andrew without any other help. Well of course it's complete nonsense and arguably contrary to the claim that organic farms employ more people than non-organic ones. Shame on me.

Sitting outside the grain store as I write waiting for the next load of wheat to come in for me to push up and noticing the amount of traffic that flits around is a bit of a reality check of just how many people are actually on the farm. There is a glut either just before or at harvest time, and not all of the traffic I am seeing is directly connected to the business of farming but to pretend that this farm is a place devoid of souls is very wrong.

Aside from David and Andrew there is Peter who is one member of a family farm that we now contract farm, but is also my part time tractor driver and occasional builder-come-handyman.

Then we have another Peter and his mate who does all our hedge cutting, flying around the fields as soon as the crops are cleared trimming back the boundaries and cleaning the ditches.

And then there is the muck spreading gang with two muck spreaders and a further guy on the loader making sure that the vast spreaders are packed to the brim as quickly as possible and all under immense pressure from the next farmer on their list who is baying for their arrival while the weather holds.

This year I have contracted out all our harvesting and so we now have the harvesting team of Richard, with his son and daughter grain carting with a further younger son in the combine cab keeping Dad company as they trog on into the night, with mum going backwards and forwards with food and drink to keep them going.

Then there are Ken and Robert who do the majority of the grain haulage from the farm with their excellent team of drivers who handily are able to load themselves sparing either David, Andrew or I the task.

Chris is also around once a week for a few hours making sure that our rented properties are kept free from the encroaching countryside and that the garden is under control.

But before harvest can even happen we have Filip and his mother, a brother and two cousins who come every year from Poland to pull oats, docks and thistles and who really set the place alive with long hard days in the fields and some restrained (ahem) partying in the evening around the inevitable barbecue.

I know that she would much prefer to be in the fields painting, but the most important person on the farm is in the office on a Wednesday without whom none of the above would get paid and she is Jenny who helps me with the endless bookwork for a day a week, or for however long it takes.

Then we have all the people who rent buildings from us, either redundant farm buildings or buildings that are surplus to requirement. They are all small businesses employing local people from the neighbouring villages and I would estimate that there are no less than twenty five people here at any one time doing all manner of work from car repairs to catering.

Lastly and possibly the most fun lot of people who regularly visit the farm are the school children who my wife Alice busies around the farm turning tractors into maths lessons, hedgerows into spelling tests and the woods into games pitches. Sometimes we even tell them about how farmers are actually engaged in food production! I know, it's ridiculous, I forget myself sometimes. Anyway, there's usually about thirty five of the little varmints.

The list could go on and on if you took into account mechanics mending machinery, conservation advisors, soil samplers, solicitors, accountants or my friendly bank manager. The fact is that on any day in the summer there could be up to eighty people on the farm either helping us produce food, managing and enhancing our natural assets, being educated or people providing employment for local villagers.

I have one of my Grandfather's wages books dated 1953 in the office with fifty four men on the payroll all categorised into "ploughman, thatcher, gamekeeper" and the like, and although I do only employ "two full time staff" there are a still large number of people on the farm today who are contracted in to do specialist jobs, coming and going in a whirlwind of activity making the place feel far from soulless. 

So, there's nobody on the farm these days? Wrong, the farm is busy, alive, diverse and exciting just as it was sixty years ago.


For the National Farmers Union website

*From my NFU blog page: John Pawsey farms 700 hectares in Suffolk with a further 300 hectares under farm management contracts, all farmed organically, with two full time staff and three tractors.