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Talking arable with Sophie Alexander: Improvement in organic seed selection and availability needed

I have mentioned before that the Recommended Lists are inadequate for selecting organic seed.

I have mentioned before that the Recommended Lists are inadequate for selecting organic seed. The so-called untreated trials receive all the usual inputs - except fungicide - so they are not remotely representative of certified organic conditions. At last this handicap is being addressed by an EU-funded project, Liveseed, as well as the Innovative Farmers trials and other independent initiatives.

 

Improvement in organic seed selection and availability becomes ever more critical as demand for organic produce increases. The recently published 2019 Organic Market Report indicates that the UK sector is in its fifth consecutive year of growth and is expected to reach a value of £2.5 billion by 2020.

 

This is reflected in a 29.4% increase in land going into conversion. However, it is estimated that we still import 80% of our organic animal feed and with demand going up, particularly in the poultry sector, and with processors and retailers requesting more UK-grown grain, there is everything to play for.

 

It is mid-February as I write, the soil temperature is about 8degC and we are teetering on the cusp of drilling 40 hectares of Mulika wheat if it remains dry. The 23mm of rain at the start of the month delayed field operations but disconcertingly we have still only had about 50% of average rainfall for this time of year.

 

Nearly 10% of the arable area at Hemsworth Farm was reclaimed from a WWII airbase. Between 1980 and 1985, acres of concrete were broken up and the fields re-landscaped. Instead of quality topsoil they unfortunately shipped in dodgy subsoil from the construction site of a local bypass. When I put Hurricane field (it is a windy spot but is actually named after the fighter plane) down to a grazing ley in 2015, I realised too late that shallow rooted white clover/ryegrass was not going to be an adequate conditioner.


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Soil texture

 

Usually there is a satisfying and reassuring improvement in soil texture, appearance and smell after a three-year fertility building rest. But Hurricane field remains as heavy, gravely and unforgiving as ever. It remains to be seen what sort of first wheat it produces this year.

 

An alternative option is to ‘go wild’ which has been the fate of the 2ha concrete jungle patch in the field next door. The ‘patch’ has destroyed many a mouldboard and supported only thin weedy crops so it definitely ticks the box of marginal land not worth the resources to crop.

 

There is a defining difference between conservation and wilding which intrigues me. Wilding is initiated with no preconceived design to create or conserve a particular habitat or species. Instead it is a process of ceasing to interfere and allowing whatever colonises the area to evolve. We live in a tidy-minded world which influences our views about how we consider the countryside should look. Flora and fauna flourish in what we tend to perceive as messy. It remains to be seen what emerges from a bit of mess in the ‘patch’.

 

Reluctantly I have come to terms with the fact that it is way too late for me to ever make it as an astronaut. However, as part of being an Agri-Epi satellite farm I am learning to fly a drone, which for me is as challenging as rocket science. The high-definition camera can record minute detail down to specific stems and leaves. It will be fascinating to see how this information eventually influences crop and soil management decisions.

 

It is curious how many of the high-tech devices we have access to are incompatible with each other. The information I collect with the drone cannot be used on the same platform that I subscribe to for soil analysis, cropping and yield maps so I end up storing the information separately with different companies. No surprise that countries like Germany and Denmark have standardised such things. How ‘very UK’ to persist with a contrary approach.

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