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New thinking for organic combinable crop agronomy

Some of the challenges and latest developments in organic food and farming came under the spotlight at the National Organic Combinable Crops Conference (NOCC15) in Suffolk. Heather Briggs reports.

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New thinking in terms of organics! #organic #arable

Black-grass, thistles and gout fly are among the challenges facing organic growers, just as conventional growers, visitors to the Organic Farmers and Growers-organised (OF&G) National Organic Combinable Crops Conference (NOCC15) event at organic farmer John Pawsey’s Shimpling Park Farm, near Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, heard.


In some respects these challenges were a result of a lack of investment in specialist organic machinery and the need to know how to establish successful cover crops as fertility building leys, said Mr Pawsey, who manages 607 hectares (1,500 acres) organically at Shimpling Park and further organic acreage at other sites, all under OF&G licence.


For many years Mr Pawsey’s operation was stockless, but he has recently introduced livestock back onto the family farm for the first time since the 1960s. His flock of New Zealand Romney sheep is taking part in a Duchy Organic Future Farming research project looking at bringing livestock onto arable farms and the effects of grazing on black-grass in arable rotations.


This year the farm is growing less-competitive crops, such as quinoa, and Mr Pawsey is looking at the potential for under-sowing crops with low-growing crops with a similar harvest date. Peas, beans, wheat and oats are all being grown, with the aim of capturing the nitrogen in the crop residue.


He said: “Soil has a limited ability to store N, and its release is partly dictated by soil structure. Building fertility can help increase soil organic matter and balance the release of nitrous oxide [NO2] into the atmosphere,” he said.


He is taking inspiration from growers in Scandinavia in an effort to find new ways to grow crops and increase his soil fertility through green manures, this season introducing a three-in-one drill after seeing it at work on farms in Sweden.


The machine, called System Cameleon, is a drill, fertiliser applicator and inter-row cultivator in one, which allows producers to accurately place fertiliser between rows of winter-sown crops in the spring.


The drill can also act as an inter-row cultivator, with its automatic steering options combining camera images, GPS and a side-shift mechanism for accurate weeding between crop rows.


The system has become increasing popular in Scandinavian countries as a way to grow uncompetitive crops, and Mr Pawsey thinks it has potential within his system to sow companion crops such as wheat with beans, triticale with soya or barley with peas.


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Wheat ‘population’ can now be marketed

A diverse ‘population’ of wheat suited to organic and low input farming systems was launched at NOCC15.


The ORC Wakelyn’s Population was bred by making 190 crosses among 20 different parent varieties and mixing all the resulting seed. This has now been through 11 generations of natural field selection.


Bruce Pearce, deputy director of the Organic Research Centre, said Wakelyn’s Population was genetically diverse, and all plants in it were genetically distinct. This differs from standard pure-line varieties, which are almost identical.


“This means populations are better able to adapt to unpredictable environments, including weather and pest/disease pressures,” he said.


Until now, it has been illegal to market such populations because they do not conform to EU law, which currently ensures monocultural uniformity.


“From trials completed over the last decade we have been able to convince EU officials the benefits of the population approach should be evaluated through test marketing at the European level.


“As a result, in March 2014 the EU law was changed to allow a trial period for marketing ‘varieties’ [populations] which do not fit the normal rules and regulations,” said Prof Pearce.


Wakelyn’s Population is suitable for baking or animal feed.

new organic grants

New organic farming grants available

Having the opportunity to make a gradual conversion from conventional to organic is crucial to attracting new entrants into the sector, said John Pawsey.


That way they get the opportunity to test the market in addition to testing their skills in organic farming.


The Countryside Stewardship Scheme has opened with 16 options for organic farming. This will provide new opportunities for conversion and ongoing management, said ORC director Nicolas Lampkin.


Five exclusively organic options were developed by Natural England with input from the ORC. These included over-wintered stubble, multi-species ley and under-sown cereal.

Organic options

Payment rate

Overwintered stubble (OP1)


Wild bird seed mixture (OP2)


Supplementary feeding for farmland birds (OP3)

£494/t for every 2ha of wild bird seed mixture*

Multi species ley (OP4)


Under-sown cereal (OP5)



Note: * Restricted option and only permitted when OP2 is in the agreement.

Source: ORC

Business opportunities for organic growers

Organic Trade Board (OTB) statistics showed 35 per cent of consumers made at least one organic purchase in the month leading up to NOCC15, Stephen Clarkson, certification and compliance manager for OF&G, said.


A high number of these purchases were made by people aged 25-44, which was positive for the sector.


In the last two years, organic markets have returned to growth following the difficult years of the recession. Farm Business Survey data shows profitability of organic farms to be similar to conventional farms.


However, this growth is particularly evident in independent retailers and box schemes rather than the large retail chains.

Soil assessment key to success

Soil scientist Dr Julia Cooper, of Newcastle University, advised growers to look at the physical, chemical and biological composition of soils.


“Look at the structure of the soil; break up clods and feel the texture of it in your hands,” she said.


Giving pointers on colour and pH, she highlighted the importance of soil biology and its influence on soil organic matter and fertility.

She also advised checking on crop rooting, once crops were established, so lessons could be learned for the future if need be.


For example, quinoa, which Mr Pawsey is growing at Shimpling Park, was a ‘little shy’ when it came to rooting, she said. “So it tends not to do so well in heavy, compacted soils.”

Points to consider

Points to consider when assessing soils

  • Signs of earthworm activity. Although these are most active in the spring, at around the time when cultivation is done, there should be signs and earthworm holes left in the soil
  • Crop residue breakdown is a sign of biological activity. Residues which have been ploughed in should show signs of being well broken down within the year
  • Check the roots of the growing crop for both vigour and also signs of mycorrhizal fungi, which create a symbiotic relation association with the plant

Source: Julia Cooper/Newcastle University

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