Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Suffolk organic farm delivers profit and ‘public goods’

January 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Organic farming offers a way forward at a time when conventional agriculture faces significant pressure and uncertainty, believes John Pawsey.

With all the uncertainties surrounding Brexit, Suffolk farmer John Pawsey says he is very pleased to be organic. Mr Pawsey is owner of Shimpling Park Farms, a fully-organic enterprise near Bury St Edmunds which encompasses some 1471ha.

About 70% of organic combinable crops are imported, so UK buyers looking to source domestically-produced organic products are willing pay a genuine premium, says Mr Pawsey, who began the organic conversion process with his wife Alice in 1999.

A long-standing member of Fram Farmers, Mr Pawsey explained the benefits of organic agriculture to other members of the farmer-owned cooperative during a recent farm walk. “We decided to go organic for a number of reasons,” he says.

“I was worried that our soils were being over-worked, by the diminishing biodiversity on the farm and because I felt that we didn’t really know enough about the long-term effects of agrochemicals, which was a big concern as applying them was one of my jobs.

“We seemed to be spraying all the time, even though we used an independent agronomist who had no vested interested in getting us to use more ag-chems than was necessary. When I came here in 1985, I thought I was buying well, but when I compared this to what we were paying through Fram Farmers I was way out.

“Although we no longer purchase any ag-chems, we still order a wide range of inputs through the cooperative, such as fuel, building materials and livestock supplies.”

Challenging times

During the 1990s, as the farming landscape became more challenging, wheat prices eased to £79/t and oilseed rape £117/t. Public awareness of environmental and animal welfare issues was increasing, and post-BSE there were lingering concerns over food safety. Farm diversification was coming onto the agenda and support for organics was growing with government and retail buyers.

The turning point for Mr Pawsey was visiting Ben Powell at nearby Place Farm, Hawstead.

“His father had “gone organic” in the 1970s and the farm looked fantastic. In 1999, I converted 54ha and another 65ha in 2000, based on a six-year rotation comprising two years of grass/clover, winter wheat, triticale, beans and under-sown spring wheat.

“When we compared the margins, the case for changing was clear.

“Having seen our results, three farms that we managed decided to go organic and we’ve since taken on others whose owners are interested in this approach. It takes more time and effort to manage land organically, but the sector is developing rapidly.

“There’s a huge amount of technology available and more is on the way.”

Different approach

When Mr Pawsey started, the biggest difficulty was not farming conventionally. “In my mind. I was still growing for the ‘conventional’ market so I tried and failed to short-cut the organic system, struggled to establish under-sown crops and still looked at varieties’ disease resistance scores rather than crop architecture. “

Farming well organically involves using a range of methods to control weeds, pests and diseases naturally, in combination with proper rotations, building fertility naturally using legumes or green manures.

“We don’t use fertilisers and despite being BASIS trained I have sprayed nothing since 2007. The aim is to leave soils in good heart for future generations and improve biodiversity.

Reducing labour

“Achieving yield stability is fundamental, which rules out many modern varieties and splitting cropping between winter and spring-sown, which spreads the workload and reduces labour and machinery requirements.”

Diversity is the name of the game, not just with rotations but cultivations too, drilling dates, crop competition, crop spacing, companion cropping, keeping livestock and weed control. Diverse cropping, and diversity within cropping, helps to disrupt the lifecycle of pests and build populations of beneficial insects.

Disease is minimised using a combination of sowing dates, crop spacing, bi-cropping, varietal blending and plant populations. Weeds are controlled using allelopathy – plants that harm or kill other nearby plants – drainage, livestock and mechanical methods.

Wider benefits

Sheep were reintroduced to recycle nutrients. New Zealand Romneys live outside year-round, require little management, lamb outside successfully on their own, have good feet, are resistant to worms and do well on poorer pastures. Their meat is sold direct to the public, local high-end restaurants and butchers.

“Farming organically, I feel much more connected to the whole process and my knowledge of farming, wildlife and the countryside has increased greatly, because every aspect is inter-related and requires you to be fully engaged with what’s going on.

“Farmers will have to think more creatively to access public money in the future and will be rewarded for ‘public good’. I believe that as organic farmers we can really deliver on that front.

Every year we welcome thousands of visitors, including educational visits which give pupils an invaluable insight into the countryside, the business of farming and the fun of learning in an outside classroom.

“It’s good to be able to tell them that the number of birds on the farm has increased dramatically since we started to farm organically and that surveys by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust have identified species not been seen in the county for years.

“I’m excited that more farmers are thinking this way and by the knowledge exchange taking place between the conventional and organic sectors. The future for organic farming looks very positive and new technology is coming along which will help us to further increase profitability.”


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