With Organic September in full swing, Clemmie Gleeson speaks to arable farmer John Pawsey about his decision to convert his conventional system to organic, and the challenges and benefits it brought to the business.
Suffolk farmer John Pawsey describes himself as ‘a farmer first, and an organic farmer second’.
“I don’t like the conflict between conventional and organic,” he says.
“We are all in this together and have so much to learn from each other.”
John started his farming career in 1985, working alongside his grandfather David Alston.
Over the years, John has bought additional land and taken on contract acres too, but the biggest change was the decision to convert to organic production.
“In 1998 the wheat price was on the floor at £55/tonne but our budgets were about £75/t so we were struggling.
“I had always been interested in ecology and wildlife, so when the Organic Farming Scheme was launched in 1999, organic production started to look like an option for us.”
He visited Ben Powell who had been farming organically since the 1970s and John could see – despite the heavy soils they both farmed on – it was possible to produce arable crops in an organic system.
He initially converted 121 hectares (300 acres) with a six-year rotation, starting with a two-year grass clover ley followed by winter wheat, triticale, winter beans and spring wheat.
“I compared the actuals against those from the rest of the farm and found we were £150/ha better off on the organic land.”
This, he says, gave him the confidence to convert the rest.
“As a business, I felt the conventional model was broken. We were price takers and if we had a good year, then inputs or machinery costs would go up the following year. It really restricted us.
“I also felt a complete slave to the sprayer,” he says.
BASIS-trained John did all the spraying on-farm and would sometimes feel the success or failure of a crop lay on the correct use of agro-chemicals.
He recalls seeing a brown hare on the land running through an area which he had just sprayed.
“The hare stopped to clean itself and there was me with my protective gear in a sealed cab. It didn’t feel right at all.”
When he made the decision to convert all his land, John approached the landowners who had contracted their farms to him.
“I told them my plans and assumed they would want to look for another contractor, but all three decided to come with me and convert too.”
This was 16 years ago and in the last two years John has added further acreage to his portfolio, now having a total of 1,214ha (3,000 acres), of which 607ha (1,500 acres) are his own.
In his first two years of organic farming at Shimpling Park Farm, John admits his approach was much the same as before, aside from not using chemicals.
But he quickly learned this would not work, as focusing on winter crops gave the weeds a head start.
“Now we have a mixture of spring and winter crops and we have no down months anymore.”
This has spread the workload and meant he can downsize his farm machinery to lower horsepower, smaller kit which is worked harder.
The rotation, which was once simple with just wheat and oilseed rape, is now a selection of different crops.
“Our system has to be based on a diverse rotation or weeds, pests and disease can become a major problem,” says John.
“And as soon as weeds come in, yields come down.”
The rotation is flexible, he says, and crop choice is made on a field-by-field basis.
This includes two years of clover, followed by winter wheat, oats, beans and finally spring barley. However, the first wheat can be swapped for spelt.
“Spelt is tall and competitive, so it does well with weeds,” he says.
“Quinoa can also be swapped for the second cereal but it’s not as competitive and needs more fertility.”
John brought back the two-year ley as he felt one year did not build enough fertility in soil. However, two years with no crop was expensive, so he started to consider livestock.
Having not worked with sheep before, John admits he likes a challenge and is an avid reader, so he researched the options and, in 2014, invested in his first 250 ewes with a further 250 bought a year later.
New Zealand Romney was his breed of choice, having decided he needed animals which would lamb outside, thrive on grass with no concentrates and not require worming.
The first batch of ewes went to the tup last year and have produced the farm’s first crop of lambs this year.
“They scanned at 181 per cent, which was higher than we expected,” he says.
Otherwise the Romneys have performed exactly as hoped and April-born lambs have thrived on the clover-heavy leys, which also contain a mixture of herbs and other grasses.
The first lambs went to slaughter in early August and John’s wife Alice has been busy selling them to wholesalers, local butchers and restaurants to high praise.
“We’ve had some great feedback,” says John, who also employs part-time shepherd Will Pine.
Another key member of the team is arable manager Nick Corp who joined the business in 2014.
“We had just agreed to take on 1,000 more acres over 24 months and, with the first 500 acres I realised we were running on very low labour and skeleton machinery.
“I was running round like a headless chicken so I advertised for an assistant farm manager.”
John was surprised and delighted to receive 36 applications for the post.
“Employing Nick has allowed me to concentrate on the detail I should have been focusing on and he is looking at our rotation, our agronomy, and where it should be.”
Other staff members include a full-time and a part-time tractor operator, plus seasonal staff when needed.
Machinery is continually being considered, with the general consensus being smaller horsepower machines suit the farm better.
They use a controlled traffic system to minimise compaction, so are moving away from tracked machines.
A recent purchase has been a machine which is both a seed drill and an inter-row hoe from Sweden.
The System Cameleon, made by Gothia Redskap, is the first of its kind in this country and they were inspired to get it by a friendship with Swedish farmer Joel Mansson, who John met via his YouTube channel.
“I’ve been posting videos on YouTube for a few years and Joel commented and advised me on what we were doing.
“The Swedes are so far ahead of us with organic farming – they are storming ahead and make us look backward.”
After exchanging emails, John invited Joel and his partner to visit his farm and used the meeting to have a brainstorming session.
Joel’s ideas have inspired changes, from increasing crop diversity to buying the Cameleon.
“I have learned so much through Twitter and YouTube – I get most of my advice and inspiration from talking to farmers in Europe and further afield, rather than through organic research in this country,” says John.
"I would never say never, but I have no plans to go back to conventional farming"
Since converting to organic production, wildlife – particularly birdlife – has thrived on-farm, says John.
“We survey every four years and the latest one compared some neighbouring land before we took it for conversion,” he explains.
“The surveyor from Suffolk Wildlife Trust had never seen such a huge flock of fieldfares and we also have a huge population of yellowhammers.”
Barn owls and many other species have also benefitted from the conversion.
In fact, there were 17 times as many birds on John’s land compared to the neighbouring land pre-conversion.
“As well as margins and hedgerows, they benefit from the low level weeds in crops, which all provide the insects and seeds birds need.”
John markets his crops through farmer-owned company Organic Arable, which he is a director of.
“Joining together enables us to supply supermarkets,” he explains.
His feed wheat and beans supply BQP, which rears pigs under the Duchy brand for Waitrose, while his oats are sold to Whites in Northern Ireland.
“We never put anything in the ground without an end market and usually an assured price,” says John.
It is this which means organic farming has a real future, he believes.
“I would never say never, but I have no plans to go back to conventional farming.
“Farms are small businesses which buy inputs from fewer and fewer large global businesses. At the end of the day, they think about their business, rather than yours.
“We really enjoy the niche marketing and I don’t see any attraction to going back.”