Memorandum submitted by CWS Farms Group
FOCUS OF FARMING PRACTICEORGANIC FARMING
EXPERIMENTS 1989-1997 A SUMMARY OF KEY FINDINGS
In 1989, CWS Agriculture decided to investigate
the technical feasibility and economic consequences of organic
farming. The experiment was begun at a time when there was little
credible information about organic systems and against a background
of rising demand for organic produce. CWS Agriculture wanted to
discover if organic farming was a profitable option for the organisation.
Since establishing the trial, CWS Agriculture
has also set up an integrated farming experiment in conjunction
with the international fertiliser company, Hydro Agri and the
national crop protection distributor, Profarma. This includes
an extensive environmental monitoring programme which has now
also been extended to the organic farm, allowing comparisons across
all three farming systems: organic, integrated and conventional.
A total of 270 acres were converted to the Soil
Association Standard over the period 1989-1991 at CWS Agriculture's
Stoughton estate, near Leicester. Three separate systems were
A mixed organic system;
A stockless all arable farming system;
A horticultural enterprise.
The whole farm was converted simultaneously
and each field has followed a different rotational sequence. This
has allowed a great deal to be learnt from the first full seven
The land proved unsuitable for organic horticulture
and the decision was taken to discontinue this enterprise in 1995.
In setting up the experiment, great care was
taken to ensure that the organic system was not put at any disadvantage.
For example, the best land at Stoughton was chosen for the experiment
and appropriate advice has been taken throughout. The result is
that the CWS Agriculture organic farming results compare well
with national averages. In fact the price now regularly achieved
for organic beef is amongst the highest in the country.
This extensive experiment has produced a huge
volume of data from which many fascinating conclusions can be
drawn. The key results are summarised here under the headings:
economic performance, practical issues and environmental effects.
This summary, however, cannot hope to explain the details behind
the conclusions. It is recommended therefore that anyone who requires
an in-depth analysis should obtain a copy of the full report which
is available from: Alastair Leake, Project Manager, CWS Agriculture,
The White House, Stoughton, Leicester LE2 2FL. Telephone (0116)
271 4278. Fax: (0116) 272 0640.
Organic farming can be as profitable as conventional
farming. The margins after variable costs and cultivations are:
|Area Aid Payments (actual levels)||£441/ha
|Area Aid (1996 levels throughout)||£513/ha
There is a slightly greater risk of total crop failure.
The economic viability of organic farming relies on the achievement
of price premiums.
Yields are consistently lower than under the conventional
| ||W Wheat
||W Oats||W Beans
|Organic (CWS Agriculture)||4.82 t/ha
||4.87 t/ha||2.60 t/ha
|Organic (Standard)||4.30 t/ha
||4.30 t/ha||3.70 t/ha
|Conventional (Standard)||7.12 t/ha
||5.75 t/ha||3.60 t/ha
CWS Agriculture's organic farming results compare favourably
with national organic standards.
Contrary to expectations, the all-arable system has proved
to be more profitable than the mixed system.
Agricultural support is an essential to organic farming as
to conventional. Set-aside has been particularly valuable to the
all-arable organic system. It allows some payment to be received
during the vital fertility building period when green manure crops
are grown and ploughed in to provide sufficient nutrient for the
following cash crop.
Conversion payments set by Government are at an appropriate
level. When the current organic conversion payments are included
in the figures, the organic and conventional systems achieve a
similar level of profitability.
Wheat is the main cash generating organic crop.
Overheads are generally lower but the requirement to convert
land in stages reduces the potential to spread overhead costs
over a broader acreage to least initially.
Organic farming is viable on a small scale provided premiums
can be obtained.
Yields have tended to improve over time as the organisation
has gained practical experience of growing organically.
Pests and diseases have not proved to be as big a problem
as predicted just two crops have been lost; a crop of
peas to an aphid attack and a crop of wheat to slugs. This is
Delayed sowing reduces the likelihood of Barley
Yellow Dwarf Virus infection;
Reliance on mineral derived nitrogen reduces the
lushness of the crop which in turn reduces disease pressure;
Crops senesce earlier because of the lower nitrogen
levels and lack of fungicide sprays which means that aphids seldom
reach yield threatening levels
Greater weed numbers attracts more aphid predators
into the crop.
Those fields which didn't have a major weed problem prior
to conversion have remained relatively weed free.
Weeds, however, have caused complete crop failure on several
occasions. Drastic weed control measures have been necessary in
those fields where weed problems were inherited from the previous
conventional management. For the past two years one field which
was badly infested with wildoats has had to be cut before maturity
to prevent weed seed shed. Wild oats remain a problem.
Weed control options are:
Stale seedbeds. Stubbles are cultivated after
harvest to stimulate weed seed germination. These weeds are then
removed by mechanical cultivation. Removing all the seedlings
has however proved difficult.
Delayed drilling. Delaying drilling to late autumn
reduces weed germination in the lower temperatures but higher
seed rates need to be used to help establish a competitive crop.
Photo control. Some weeds need light to germinate
so night sowing trials have been conducted. Whilst this technique
seems to be very successful at reducing the germination of those
species, no yield benefits have ensued because other non-light
responsive weeds thrived instead.
Inter-row cultivations. By precision drilling
the crop, a front mounted hoe can be run through to remove inter-row
weeds. This can be successful, but it is a time consuming technique
which requires great accuracy.
Harrowcomb weeding. This is a quicker, cheaper
alternative to the inter-row hoe. It's effectiveness depends on
timing, weather and differential rooting habits of the crop and
weeds. In practice, deep, tap rooted weeds are more resistant
to the action of the weeder. There is some evidence that perennial
weeds such as docks, couch grass and creeping thistle are generally
increasing on the site.
Nutrient levels have been successfully maintained under both
systems although an application of rock phosphate had to be made
to the all-arable fields in 1994.
Quality is difficult to achieve with any consistency. Peas
and beans grown at the site have never produced the quality required
for human consumption due to pest damage, weed seed contamination
or disease levels. Milling premiums have been achieved for wheat
throughout, but in some years, these have been reduced because
of low protein levels.
Marketing is the major practical problem. To obtain adequate
premiums for organic beef CWS Agriculture joined with a number
of local organic producers to set up a local co-operative and
had to persuade local butchers to stock organic meat.
The all-arable system is simpler to manage than the traditional
Measuring the environmental effects of organic farming is
much more difficult than assessing the economic performance, not
least because the environmental consequences of changes in management
practices take a long time to become apparent. In addition there
is very little baseline data available against which to measure
any change. The CWS Agriculture organic farm is no different to
most other organic farms in this respect. Professor Roy Brown
from Bishop Burton College is responsible for the monitoring programme
at the site and is also involved in several other organic projects.
The following conclusions are drawn from his overall experience.
The perception that organic farming is per se better
for the environment because it relies on natural processes does
not always hold true. Natural processes are variable and outside
the grower's control. This can cause problems. The natural breakdown
of mineral nitrogen, for example, can occur at the wrong time
for the plants, increasing the chances of nitrate leaching. The
ploughing in of green manures has also been shown to result in
increased nitrate leaching.
It is the way that the uncropped areas, the hedges and edges,
are managed rather than the farming regime itself which appears
to have most influence on species diversity. Wildlife likes the
"unkempt bits" and organic farms are not necessarily
likely to have more untidy areas than conventional farms.
Looking in the crop itself the organic system has a much
greater density of weeds/wildflowers.
Statistically, there is little difference between the two
systems in the total numbers of small mammals living in and around
wheat field, but the number of recaptures of the same individuals
within the wheat crop is much higher under the organic regime.
This suggests that wood mice are able to move around organic fields
more easily than conventional fields.
There is little difference in the numbers or the species
diversity of birds between the two systems, however, there are
generally more potential nesting sites on the organic farm.
Mechanical weeding and the mowing of set-aside covers can
have a devastating effect on ground nesting birds.
Earthworms seem to thrive better in organic fields.
Populations of carabid beetles are more stable throughout
the year under integrated regimes than either organic or conventional
The organic experiment will be continued for at least one
further seven year rotation with a further 700 acres of land placed
into conversion to include a dairy enterprise.
The trial has proved that the organisation has the technical
expertise to farm organically and that organic farming can be
profitable but, there are practical problems. Generally, yields
are much lower. On the basis of the CWS Agriculture results, a
complete switch to organic farming would result in a 44 per cent
drop in UK wheat production. At average UK consumption that translates
into an annual shortfall of 5.1 million tonnes, although other
products other than wheat are grown in the organic system.
Data from the experiment is already proving extremely valuable
in the further development of the Focus on Farming Practice integrated
Many of the weed, pest and disease control practices used
in the organic trial have been adopted by the integrated project.
Varieties are chosen for their disease resistance and standing
power. Stale seedbed techniques are extensively used although
under the integrated system, a little help from a low dose of
contact herbicide ensures that weed control is much better and
ploughing is no longer necessary.
Delayed drilling, another organic practice, means that crops
do not become so lush as they head into winter and, hence, are
not so susceptible to disease. Late drilling also reduces competition
from weeds and decreases the chances of an aphid-borne Barley
Yellow Dwarf Virus infection. Under the integrated system such
biological and cultural controls are combined with modern crop
protection inputs to reduce the risk of total crop failure. Together
with the targeted use of fertilisers, this allows yields to be
maintained at levels where premium prices are no longer a fundamental
requirement. Indeed, input costs are much reduced compared to
conventional systems and that has a major positive impact on overall
profitability when grain prices are low.
CWS Farms Group has concerns about the development of organic
farming in the UK in two specific areas.
1. The level of subsidy afforded to other EU states exceeds
that of the UK which has encouraged more farmers to convert to
organic production. This has resulted in over supply and a consequential
reduction in price. However, the additional subsidy enables these
farmers the potential to export to the UK at below the cost of
2. The maintenance of demand for organic food and the
public confidence in the production methods employed is essential
to the success of the sector. We are concerned that unsubstantial
claims are made concerning taste, vitality and environmental benefits
of organic products and furthermore certain practices fall short
of those utilised in conventional agriculture. Of particular note
is the continued use of toxic, inorganic pesticides such as the
copper based fungicides and the lack of adequate auditing in the
areas crop storage and hygiene. If the public perceive that organic
food is "purer" and safer the systems should be in place
to ensure that it is.