While participating in the LiveWheat project, Green Acres Farm in Shropshire has shown resilience in extreme weather and achieved consistent wheat crop quality and yield. Farmers Guardian spoke to organic grower, Mark Lea, to find out more.
Growing winter wheat in organic and low-input systems can be challenging and, until now, there has been limited research undertaken in these conditions to help farmers make informed decisions about which varieties to grow.
Since 2018, the Organic Research Centre (ORC) has led field-scale variety testing with the LiveWheat project, collating data from winter wheat trials on organic and low-input farms to assess variety performance, weed abundance, crop quality and yield.
Green Acres is one of 18 farms across England taking part in the research and has been certified organic for more than 20 years by Organic Farmers and Growers (OF&G). And in that group, the mixed, 178-hectare farm business has shown the most consistent results in crop quality and yield in climatic conditions that have varied dramatically in recent years.
Following the drought of 2018 and wet summer of last year, organic farmer Mark Lea maintained an average block yield of five tonnes/ha and an average block protein of 11 per cent, whereas wheat performance on other farm trials varied considerably between the two opposite seasons.
Wheat is now an important part of the arable enterprise at Green Acres Farm, with milling winter wheats grown and sold ‘ready to mill’ direct to specialist millers and bakers. But a few years ago, Mr Lea almost gave up growing wheat altogether.
He says: “Like many organic growers, we have struggled to grow modern wheats. And it is not that they cannot perform under organic conditions, they sometimes do very well. But unreliable and inconsistent results became the norm and this was largely down to weed control, which has a massive impact on our yields.”
Mr Lea’s frustration with growing wheat led him to join the LiveWheat project for the opportunity to trial different varieties and share knowledge with a network of like-minded growers.
“By taking part in LiveWheat, we grow a range of varieties in the same field and soil conditions using the same weed control methods, so we can directly compare results to assess what works well and not so well in our system.”
In adhering to OF&G organic standards, mechanical weeding and weed suppression are key defences against weeds in the rotation.
“Weeds are my motivation and I’ll try anything I can to control them,” says Mr Lea.
“We’re part of Innovative Farmers’ living mulch group, experimentally growing buckwheat for milling that is undersown with white clover, which we are aiming to direct drill with winter oats this autumn.
“This is an example of how we are trying to reduce cultivation and the recycling of weed seeds in the soil bank. Weed control is a constant battle for us but wheat variety choice also plays an important part.”
Mr Lea says wheat varieties grown at the farm not only need to be vigorous and grow well, they must also be resilient and tolerant.
“Older, heritage wheats tend to fare well and even look better a few weeks after vigorous mechanical weeding.
“I find YQ to be a vigorous, tall and leafy variety that grows away quickly in autumn, winters well and is tremendous for weed suppression. It has all the features I need and has inspired me to continue growing wheat.
“Having said that, Group 1 variety KWS Alabaster is doing well after appearing miles behind and even poor in the winter, with little ground cover in March. Even with setbacks, it is now catching up with the strips of YQ and Maris Widgeon and I would not be surprised if it is one of the highest yielding varieties this year.
“I never expect to achieve top yields – that is not the idea. Instead, we try to grow everything for the highest market we can and for this, reliance and resilience in the varieties we choose paired with the intentional diversity in our rotation is crucial.”