Improving quality of organically produced grain and challenges to breeding cereals suitable for organic systems were among the topics discussed at National Organic Combinable Crops 2017
Achieving consistency and quality parameters sought by millers can be particularly difficult in organic systems but is important in maintaining markets.
A solution to quality issues has been found by organic oat growers supplying White’s Oats. Andrew Trump of Organic Arable, which helps organic farmers market their crops, explained how organic oat growers such as Fullerton Farms Partnership, which hosted National Organic Combinable Crops 2017, had worked to meet higher quality standards set by White’s.
“The general manager at White’s, James Mathers had experienced quality problems and needed something better and more consistent so we developed a supply chain,” said Mr Trump.
“Fullerton Farms has been supplying White’s for five years through the supply chain which involves a dedicated group of growers who want to focus on quality.”
A pricing mechanism has been developed, with contracts based on a minimum and maximum price set every September. Premiums are paid for quality and there are deductions for poor quality.
As testament to the success of the supply chain in meeting the manufacturer’s requirements, Mr Trump said: “White’s has doubled the requirement for oats grown from us.”
Members of Organic Arable pay a £7/tonne marketing commission and a levy of 50p/t is deducted, which is used to fund spring and winter oat trials each year, says Mr Trump. “White’s talk about what they are finding and how to assess the quality of oat plants.”
Ideally, oats will have one grain per panicle, he said. “This leads to lovely big grains – jumbo flakes which are a high value product. White’s is no longer producing a commodity it is producing a product. And provided oats are not high moisture, with low kernel and high screenings the good relationship will go on.”
Firth has worked well as a variety for the miller with its high hullability, unlike Canyon, which Mr Trump said has poor hullability. “If you have only 60 per cent output for every tonne you put through you have to put 40 per cent back through which is an expensive process.
“We are excited by Elyann; it has a good kernel content and hullability,” he said. “This year White’s are taking it in as a conventional crop for the first time and will test it through the mill. It may be a replacement for Firth and it would be nice to have an alternative.”
A visitor to the event commented on how clean the crop at Fullerton Farms looked. Partner Tom Liddell said: “It is the first crop after a grass ley. There are a few wild oats but it tends to stay clean. Barley doesn’t suppress weeds and we stopped growing wheat.”
He used a seed rate of 180kg/ha for Firth and will probably increase this next year. “We prefer spring oats to winter – historically we have been a spring cropping farm. If we plough up grass leys later there is less leaching,” said Mr Liddell.
Growing organic wheat that meets the requirements of millers remains a challenge with scope for improvement, according to some visitors to the event.
East Yorkshire-based organic farmer and miller Tim Sellers produces flour for artisan bakers but reminded delegates that most organic wheat goes through a conventional rather than artisan milling process.
“We need to gear it up to what they need and are prepared to accept. If millers won’t accept it this is problematic.”
David Walmsley, business director at Nicholas & Harris, one of the UK’s largest organic bakers, said while he previously used 100 per cent UK-grown organic wheat, he had been experiencing problems with quality and now used a blend of UK with European wheat. “There was poor consistency – the protein levels were dropping and hagbergs. We need to find an industry solution.”
Professor Martin Wolfe of Wakelyns Agroforestry believes food processors should do more to help produce quality organic products. “Industrial processes should be easier to adjust than farming systems. We need more R&D in industrial processing to see whether there is a way to come closer to what a good artisan baker can do.”
Breeding suitable varieties for organic systems was a key topic debated at the conference with Professor Martin Wolfe of Wakelyns Agroforestry keen to highlight the benefits of maintaining genetic diversity over monoculture.
“For anyone growing variety mixtures on their farm it becomes a trial and selection process and you cannot show advantages at a field or district level,” said Prof Wolfe.
“Trading these populations is not legal although Brussels has agreed an important case. Staying with monocultures farmers had one hand tied behind their back. But the EU has allowed a long term trading experiment which will allow us to look at the advantages and disadvantages of variety mixtures.”
Rob Baird, director of Scotland-based grain merchant W N Lindsay is also sceptical about monocultures. “Farming contractors are taking on larger acreages – five, six, 10,000 acres; monoculture will not last the test of time,” he said.
Organic farmer Stephen Briggs, based in Cambridgeshire, said trials of cereal varieties in organic conditions are taking place. “Some farmers are trialling and some merchants are doing good work on variety trials in different locations. But you need to ask – is it suitable for my farm? No time soon will we see broad acre seed breeders coming up with organic varieties. Team up with merchants and trial varieties on your own farm.”
National Organic Combinable Crops 2017 was held at Fullerton Farms Partnership near Andover, Hants. The farm comprises 283ha (700 acres) of organic arable crops, run by Tom Liddell, 69ha (170 acres) of permanent pasture, mainly water meadows let for grazing and 12ha (30 acres) of vineyard.
Other enterprises include fly fishing on the Rivers Test and Anton, events venue hire, DIY livery and solar panels.
Soil type ranges from clay caps to chalk backs and silty loam. Mr Liddell describes it as ‘free draining but not very fertile’.
The arable rotation is spring oats/winter rye or spelt/overwinter cover crop – usually mustard/spring barley undersown with a herbal ley which is established for two summers.
Main inputs are rock phosphate and green compost. Mr Liddell said he plants aggressive crops to compete with weeds.