Nurturing Understanding – reaping benefits

On 18th March a Organic Arable brought together organic farmers, some buyers of both animal feeds and human consumption grains and other stakeholders to explore how the organic grain market could work better under the title – “Nurturing Understanding  – reaping benefits”.

The day was chaired by Lawrence Woodward and there were presentations from Raymond Hilman, Whites Speedicook and Andrew Trump, Organic Arable.  In addition the audience were asked to consider in groups what a perfect grain contract would look like and why there is not better co-operation within the supply chain.

The presentations are available here:

Organic Arable Market Situation

Organic Arable Market Situation

Raymond Hilman's Presentation

Working Together

The first presentation by Andrew Trump set the scene for the current organic market seeing it in a global perspective.   Whilst the UK is seeing some small signs of growth in organic sales it lags well behind other international markets in Europe but particularly the strength of the US market.  At £24 billion the US organic market is 43% of global organic sales and grew by 11% in 2014 and this annual growth is larger than the whole UK market.

Whilst demand grows supplies of arable crops remain stubbornly static and the traditional suppliers to the USA of combinable crops, Canada, Argentina, Australia and South Africa are not seeing significant additional conversion of organic land and certainly insufficient to feed US demand.  In the USA grain prices have risen dramatically and this combined with the strength of the US Dollar against international currencies has led the US to look to new countries to fulfil their demand.  Of particular importance to the UK and Europe is the presence of the US in the Black Sea.  In 2014 US purchases of Romanian maize grew from $454,000 in 2013 to over $11,000,000.

A combination of a rapidly growing market, a strong currency and the volume requirements the US need to feed their organic livestock sector is likely to make them an influential entrant into the European market in the short to medium term.  They will also have an influence as they start to buy processed product out of Europe in greater volumes, for example there was recently talk of a need for additional butter requirements to fulfil the US market for shortbread.

The possibility of GM commercialisation in Ukraine was raised.  Currently GM free, the political unrest has in Ukraine has led to a greater requirement for international finance and with this (whether directly or indirectly) there seems to have been a move towards a softening in the position towards GM cultivation amongst several Ukrainian agricultural organisations.  The prospect of GM cultivation of maize would add uncertainty to the supply of organic maize from the region as the possibility of GM contamination would increase.

The conclusions of the presentation were that Black Sea organic supplies would become more expensive and less certain with the greater possibility of supply shocks making it a less certain source of product for the UK.

However, the opportunities to encourage greater supply was also mentioned.  The suggestion was made that with better financial returns available to organic farmers and greater technical support being supplied by the sector it was only the market that was the uncertainty for new entrants.  If better longer term supply opportunities could be developed this uncertainty could be largely removed providing great opportunities for additional organic conversion.

Raymond Hilman from Whites Speedicook then spoke about the supply arrangement they have for organic milling oats with Organic Arable as an exemplar of what can be achieved if buyer and seller work together to overcome supply issues.  Whites Speedicook wanted to improve milling oat quality being delivered to the mill to improve their milling efficiency.  Doing so has allowed them to become more competitive in the market and pay a stable price (with quality premiums) to growers.  This approach has also developed a strong and loyal group of producers who are working hard to improve oat quality as they now understand both the benefits to their business but also their customer with the rewards generate shared.

Additional benefits have accrued as Whites Speedicook have reduced their procurement costs and the group has established a forum to share best practice and a research fund to undertake some trial work to help drive the improvement in oat quality.  Finally, there are social benefits as friendships are formed the growers are now acting as informal advocates for the Whites Speedicook brand.

Organic Winter Wheat Variety Trial Results

Whenever I read about variety trials in organic systems the sage words of Prof. Martin Woolfe come to mind.  His view is “The most important aspect of yield organically is the fertility of the soil the crop is grown in, the second most important thing is the growing season and a long way third is the variety”.  That said prior to planting there is little that can be done to significantly improve soil fertility and there is nothing that can be done about the growing season and so varietal choice becomes important as it is a factor of the production cycle that is within the producer’s control which is possibly why farmers place a lot of importance on varietal choice.

A further comment is that it is worth looking at the statistics behind the trial results.  Seed merchants always focus on top yield.  However, the trials are designed and analysed to provide robust information to support decision making.  It is worth noting that the results will show whether the yield figures provided for a variety are significantly different from other varieties in the trial.  If the yields of two varieties are not significantly different from each other then you can conclude that were the trial to be repeated the same ranking would not be expected.  Just because one variety has a higher yield DOES NOT mean it will have a higher yield if the trial were repeated unless the yield is shown to be significantly different from the second variety.  Make use of all the information supplied to make management decisions not just some of it.

With these provisos ringing in your ears below are the results from the trials run by Organic Seed Producers at both Shimpling Park Farm,  Suffolk and Rectory Farm, Buckinghamshire (where the National Organic Cereals 2014 was held).  The results seem to largely confirm Martyn Woolfe’s hypothesis that variety makes little difference whilst the system does.

The vast majority of the variety’s do not show any statistically significant difference in yield at either site.  How can this be when the yield for Revelation at Shimpling Park is 1 t /ha greater than Croft?  Indeed it does but the results also show this is not significant.  This means that were the trial repeated the same results would not be predicted and so Croft could just as easily outyield Revelation.


OSP Winter Wheat Variety Trials at Rectory Farm and Shimpling Park

OSP Winter Wheat Variety Trials at Rectory Farm and Shimpling Park


On another note.  I have a  soft spot for Claire.  In  ORC trials in the early Noughties it was a reliable performer and looking up the data in ORC Bulletin 64 Dec 2002. A yield of 4.35 t /ha was achieved with Claire topping the yield chart.  The trials then were held at Chadacre Farms a neighbour of Shimpling Park and so a reasonable comparison.  So 12 years later on the same variety yielded 4.2 t /ha.  -quite consistent performance.

Comparing Winter Oat Varieties for Quality

With samples starting to go through the lab we have some test results but alongside these we have noticed some visual differences between the varieties.  The advice we have is that bushelweight is not the only determinant of oat quality and as the video below shows there is a significant difference between the size of the grain despite the bushelweight recorded by the lab.

Comparing Mascani & Rozmar


There are also some results back from the winter variety trials run by OSP at Great Brickhill, Bedfordshire and Shimpling Park, Suffolk  that indicate no difference in yield for the varieties in the trial apart from Rozmar  which was lower yielding at Great Brickhill.

Grain quality, measured as bushel weight showed no difference at Shimpling Park with Rhapsody and Selwyn showing a lower bushelweight at Great Brickhill.

OSP Winter Oats Trial Results

OSP Winter Oats Trial Results

Why we should be encouraging Nightcrawlers and using Latex on our fields?

Luckily I have an American sitting across the office from me to translate and I am reliably informed Nighcrawlers are “big fat worms” – thanks Kathy.  The video below is a fantastic illustration of how beneficial these magnificent creatures can be in developing our soils structure and improving water penetration and drainage.

What a great way of illustrating the state of soil structure on farm.  Should farmers start using Latex on their soils to see how well worm activity is improving their soils, if at all?  It would be great to see this on some UK soils to get an impression of the soil structure the fissures, worm activity and possible barriers that were in the soil.


Bee prepared to make changes to your shopping habits

The pro-bee lobby have been very successful in promoting the cause of bees in recent months following the neonicotinoid ban which is great as we need to support and encourage the bee population.  However, there is one very simple way in which all bee supporters could have a huge impact upon bee survival – to buy more organic food.

As organic grain farmers we do not use neonicotinoid seed dressings or use any insecticides and we have greater pollinator feeding sites as through the use of a range of clovers (red clover is better for bumble bees and white clover better for honey bees) and other legumes in our fertility building crops.  We have greater “in-crop biodiversity” the kind way to refer to weeds,  such as thistles and charlock which are great for pollinators.  These benefits are across the whole farm and embedded into the farming system and not on small, defined areas of enhanced environment as would be the case for a conventional farm.  Although such an area is useful it is less beneficial that having a whole-farm systemic management system that will improve feeding sites for pollinators.

It would be great if the NGOs and others supporting bee populations could give the clear message that: to support bees people should eat more organic food; then consumers would have a clear, simple “call to action” to help support bees.

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All that Yields is not Gold

Before rushing out to buy your oat seed for this autumn based on the Farmers Weekly piece “Three New Oat Varieties for Farmers to Try” look beyond the headlines at the data provided in the HGCA recommended List for oats.  Whilst Rhapsody does have a higher yield that Mascani both the Kernel Content and Hullability scores are well below Mascani.  The same is true for the new spring variety Monaco which again scores poorly for both Kernel Content and Hullability against a well tested variety such as Firth.    Monaco also has a very poor mildew score which may become of more importance as growers move oats further forward in their rotation.

For varietal recommendations and seed prices for growing organic oats please call 08456 521 706.

Whites Eastern Organic Oat Group Farm Walk

We are meeting on 26th June at 10.00 (until about 13.00) at Hammonds End Farm to have a farm walk to look at the effect, if any, of the application of Maxicrop. which Howard has been using on his oats (and other crops) this year. Maxicrop is claimed to stimulate chlorophyll production in the leaf, stimulate soil biological activity and  and reduce stress experienced by plants.

brix testerWe will have a look at a Brix test to assess the difference in the nutrient levels in the leaves which may give us some indication as to whether the Maxicrop has had any effect.  Ultimately the test will be the quality of the grain that is produced but hopefully some simple assessments at the field lefel can help us all understand how close we are to achieving the goal of better grain quality.

Please let Kathy know if you are coming on 08456 521 706


“If it ain’t good enough to sow, it ain’t good enough to sell”

In the last month or so we have had some loads of oats tested for which the screenings have increased from a perfectly respectable level at below 5% to levels approaching 10% or even higher.

One possible reason for this is that farmers are cleaning their home-saved spring seed and then dumping the out-turn from the mobile cleaner back onto the heap.

This leads to costs in either claims or additional cleaning.  One recent example saw a through store weight loss of approximately 16% despite the screenings testing at about 11%.  In order to remove the screenings the load needed to be cleaned twice which clearly resulted in additional losses.

As we move forwards with premiums payable for improved oat quality it will increasingly be false economy to continue the practice of adding seed cleanings to your grain.  Please put them in the feed bin or heap for the gamekeeper and remember the adage, “If it ain’t good enough to sow, it ain’t good enough to sell”

How do you match up as an organic farmer?

We have been running some organic benchmarking with a  small group of arable producers and now have 5 year’s data.  There are some interesting details which come out of this exercise to do with long terms trends.  It might be of interest for you to think about how your farming business compares? From a marketing perspective it gives some very clear information about the levels that are required in order to provide for a sustainable business.

The headline statistics:

  • It costs about £1050 – £1100 per ha to grow an organic cereal crop but beans are a bit cheaper
  • Average wheat yield was 4.29 t / Ha and for beans it was 2.63 t/Ha
  • There was a 3.01 t/Ha spread between the highest yielding year for wheat and the lowest.  For beans the spread was 3.16 t/Ha

So how can we use this information?  Firstly, as a farming business you can use some of this data as a point of comparison to see how your cereal production measures up and this can then lead to questions as to where and why the differences occur.  We can also use it to look at the longer term sustainability of markets.  If we know the average cost of production per Ha and the average yield we know where the market need to be in order to provide a profitable return to the farmer.  The data would put this figure at in the mid £240’s which is above most sales from the 2013 harvest.

With conventional feed grains trading at about £150 for November 2014 we need a premium closer to £100 per tonne than looks likely at present.  Perhaps a fair price for organic grain should be a £100 premium over the conventional ex farm value?

The data also shows that beans should have  a premium of about £100 per tonne over the organic cereal price.  This level is rarely achievable.

This work has come about through the work undertaken with the farmers supplying BQP with feed wheat, feed barley and beans.  This is a market that is seeking to maximise the tonnage of UK grown feed grains fed to pigs.  It is  known market to grow for and has been a successful venture for the farmers currently supplying it.  If you would like to get involved with this group and grow for a known, secure market please contact us on 08456 521 706


Armchair Farming

Have a look at this article featuring our member Jim Dufosee!

Marianne Landzettel – 26 March 2014
Jim DufoseeJim Dufosee on his farm

… is not a synonym for a journalist writing about agriculture. An organic farmer I recently met coined the phrase. Jim Dufosee raises sheep and beef cattle in Wiltshire and grows feed. When he switched to organic it wasn’t necessarily because he was one of the converted. Back then there were financial incentives to do so.

“Today I just know I’m doing the right thing”, he says, and he wouldn’t go back to conventional farming even if they paid him. When I asked him where his way of working had changed the most Jim hesitated a moment and then said: “I need to do a lot more armchair farming these days”.

“If you are a conventional farmer, no matter what your problem, there will be a chemical solution for it. Or at least that’s what the advisors will tell you”, says Jim.

“As an organic farmer I have to sit down and work out a solution for myself”. What Jim needs to figure out is what works on his farm, his land and for his animals. And sometimes the solution is: Jim has his cattle and sheep graze the same pastures in alternate years and that has brought the parasite numbers right down.

In a recent interview Doug Gurian-Sherman, a US scientist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) talked about GMO crops. A new generation, resistant to 2,4 D and Dicamba (better known as the active ingredients in ‘Agent Orange’, the de-leafing chemical used during the Vietnam war), are expected to be deregulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the near future.

“Growing food in a biologically and ecologically sound way is not what the (big agro-chemical) companies want”, Doug said. “It’s not a product intensive approach, it’s a knowledge intensive approach”. (Interview by Melinda Hemmelgarn, Food Sleuth podcast 17.02.2014) Farmers who know their stuff will manage pests through crop rotation and improve the soil quality with cover crops – measures that in conventional agriculture will reduce the use of fertilisers and pesticides. Organic farmers have to figure out other ways of working in any case.

Hence more armchair farming is needed. In organic and conventional farming. And more independent research, done at universities and independent research institutes, not in the laboratories of Monsanto, Syngenta & Co – the solution is not another poison and a GMO crop that can take it.

Marianne is a journalist and broadcaster. Agriculture, food, farming and their interconnections are her passion. She’s co-written a book on urban agriculture, covering the US, the UK and South Asia. She has worked for the BBC World Service, and has been UK and Ireland correspondent for German public radio (where she started out as a reporter for the farming programme in the 1980s). Marianne is a Riverford veg box addict and doesn’t function without coffee