Changes to the site mean you can have access without needing to register or to log in

An organic education for Harper students

Date Published: 04/05/2012

An audience of students and farmers gathered at Harper Adams University College to chew over the age-old organic versus non-organic debate.

A healthy crowd for a lively debate
A healthy crowd for a fascinating debate

Around 100 people turned-up to hear from both organic and non-organic farmers and sector representatives in response to a call from one concerned student who was dismayed that organic was absent from the teaching curriculum.

Imogen Radford, a second year on the BSc (Hons) in Agriculture course, first raised her concerns at Organic Farmers & Growers’ National Organic Cereals event, held in Cambridgeshire in July last year. OF&G backed her idea to bring the sides together and debate the issues, which resulted in the event on May 4.

The audience, which included the college’s principal, Dr David Llewellyn, heard a variety of views, from the panel covering the whole spectrum of reasons to be organic or not, from the purely commercial to the ethical.

The panel was chaired by OF&G chief executive, Richard Jacobs, and made up of:

  • Tim Perrett, senior producer advisor at the Soil Association;
  • Jo Franklin, a non-organic farmer, agronomist, 2006 Harper Adams student and Nuffield Scholar;
  • Rob Alderson, non-organic farmer and Shropshire NFU county chairman;
  • Mike Radford, a Cambridgeshire organic arable and cattle farmer (and Imogen’s father);
  • Oliver Surman, of Surman’s Farm and the Pegoty Hedge Partnership, an organic farmer and food manufacturer, owner of the Pegoty Hedge brand.

Richard Jacobs said: “Despite there being some, quite reasonable, expectation of very heated debate, it was all very convivial and reasoned – which is actually the way we would prefer it to be. As was made clear by the panel, there is no need to come vehemently down in favour of one form of farming or the other. Both have plenty to offer and I think that if the perceived divides can be smoothed over and everyone can learn from each other, that is going to be to everyone’s benefit.”

Opening the debate, Imogen Radford told the audience: “The reason I organised this was I thought there tends to be quite a big divide in the way organic farming is portrayed to students in education and I feel it can be quite divided and unbalanced. I thought what better way to get students to share their opinions than to get a very good panel and talk out the issues.”

The range of views expressed by the panel was wide. Starting things off, Tim Perrett opened by making the case for organic from the point of view of the campaigning charity he represents: “In terms of the market, it is there and we’ve got to offer consumers the choice of what they want to purchase. I think the market does add conflict to us as farmers, which is unfortunate but it’s the way the world works and there’s always going to be a demand for organic products, I believe.

“Certainly in Europe and America and now China we’re starting to see an increase in the people wanting to buy from these agricultural systems. Maybe a reason for that is these systems have been regulated, in the United Kingdom’s case for 30 years, so it can give the assurance to the consumer that when they buy organic they know that farm is trying to do the best they can, whether that is in terms of welfare or in terms of soil management. Organic is such a big issue, it’s very hard for us to get a direct message through.”

OF&G chief executive, Richard Jacobs (standing), chaired the proceedings
OF&G chief executive, Richard Jacobs (standing), chaired the proceedings

Tim’s presentation was followed by Rob Alderson, a South Shropshire non-organic farmer who is also chairman of the county’s NFU branch. He began by stressing that his position was that care for the soil as the key asset of any farm was not the preserve of the organic sector.

Picking up on comments made earlier by others that soil was perhaps not the “sexiest” of subjects, Rob was keen to point out: “Soil is sexy, it’s cool and it’s the most important thing we have to work with. Look after your ground. An older farmer said to me a few years ago, if you look after your farm like a bank account you won’t go too far wrong. You can borrow from your bank account but after so long you can’t borrow any more and you’re in trouble. If you can put something in your bank account and keep it well in credit then you can get on with it. And on a farm the soil is the most important part. Healthy soil means you’ve got a good chance of running a good business.”

He went on: “I’m farming 427 acres. 220 acres of that is permanent pasture and a chunk of that permanent pasture is probably more organic than some organic farms and I like the diversity that I can operate in within my farm,” adding “I’m seven years shy of being the Alderson that’s there a 100 years after my first great uncle, so we haven’t broken the farm yet and I like to think that we have worked very much with changes in agriculture and, personally, I think the farm is looking very healthy. And with working hand-in-hand with the conservation schemes, we are tapping in to the diverse nature of the farm, so that I can actually utilise all aspects of the farm.”

When questioned by one of the students on whether he thought going organic would make his business non-viable, Rob explained that he considered his farm benefitted most from “having all of the tools available”, being able to make use of the advice of an agronomist and the advances he has seen in techniques and technologies.

“My system works very well for me, so I wouldn’t particularly go organic. One size doesn’t fit all and it’s not something for my particular farm.”

Next to take the floor was organic farmer, Mike Radford. He upped the ante on Rob Alderson’s 93 years on the same land, explaining that his family had just passed its century. Mike’s reasons for moving to organic 12 years ago might have raised the eyebrows of a few of the students.

“I farmed conventionally, if you like, until the year 2000, so about 25 years of my farming career conventionally and very intensively. I was, I guess, what you might call an early adopter. We were first into things like strobilurins and the chemicals at the forefront of things, so we have a fair history of that and I can’t say I’m particularly frustrated at losing the tools from my toolbox, because obviously as an organic farmer you don’t lose the tools, you just take other tools. So we have tools that we can use for pest control, for weed control and so on.”

He added: “We’ve all got grandparents, great grandparents or whatever that farmed organically because that was all the farming that was done 50 years ago. There was no chemical farming because there were no chemicals to use. Unfortunately their knowledge, by and large, has all gone and I’m sure all organic farmers would agree that we really miss that link, that the knowledge they had has disappeared in many cases and we’ve had to re-learn all those lessons.”

Mike explained that his reasons for turning to organic were three-fold. Financially it was becoming harder to compete with much larger neighbouring farms who wanted to swallow their, then, 400 acres. Organic provided an opportunity, though he conceded that they might not be better off financially for having made the switch.

The second reason was emotional: “I actually like the ideology behind organic farming and, although I farmed conventionally very enthusiastically and did my best at it, my heart was never really in it. There did come a point where spending 12 hours a day squirting chemicals over my land just began to gnaw and I wasn’t really very happy with doing that any more. And that kind of leads into a third reason which was, simply, boredom.

“I had done the same thing, pretty much, I’d put on the same fungicide mix, the same growth regulators, done pretty much the same calculations in the same way for ten years. We’d refined the system, got it pretty good, it was producing four tonnes an acre without really thinking about it and, basically, it was pretty boring. There didn’t seem to be any new systems on the market. We were using minimum tillage, we were using lots of fungicides, we were using the latest fungicides, and still our yields were obstinately stuck at four tonnes an acre, which we had been achieving for 15 years. And so, I thought there had to be another way of tackling the problem, so we switched to organic.”

The panel, tackling the tough questions
The panel, tackling the tough questions

Mike stressed: “The principal thing I’d like to get across is that most of you will have the idea that organic is a slightly soft and fuzzy way of farming and that’s definitely not the case. Although we don’t have the chemical armoury that conventional farmers have, we do, nevertheless, drive our systems hard. We are trying to use new techniques. We are constantly tweaking and refining our techniques to try and make them better.”

Oliver Surman, of the Pegoty Hedge Partnership, started by making the point that conventional agriculture in the UK was, in his opinion, of an excellent standard: “It produces very high quality food, very cheaply, for the end consumer. I come from a position, as an organic farmer, of offering something slightly different. I offer the consumer that choice. It’s as much a choice for me as an organic farmer as it is for the consumer to choose an organic product from the shelf.”

Oliver also took the opportunity to stake his claim in the developing theme of longevity, highlighting the 110 years his family had occupied their farm!

“We converted about 12 years ago. It was very much a head over the heart decision. We looked at our options financially, how could we make the farm sustainable in the medium to long term and, at the particular time organic seemed to be the answer. In fact, for our particular situation it seemed to be the only answer. So I guess you could say I am very light green, relative to your sort of dark green, hippy type, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t buy into the organic ethos and everything that goes with it.

“There are many things that we do organically that, were we to de-certify and become a non-organic farm, we would carry on doing. And it’s interesting to look back on my great grandfather’s diaries, from the 1920s or whenever, and he was doing the same kinds of things; planting the same clover, in the same fields, at the same time of year, for the same reasons as I am now. There’s this big chunk of time in the middle, 50 or 60 years, where for various reasons, with agricultural policy or the onset of technology, things changed. But we are definitely seeing the wheel turn full circle.

“Now, it’s interesting, also referring back to the toolbox argument, that if you flick through any agricultural magazine, you know, Farmers Weekly, Farmers Guardian, whatever one you read, you’ll be bombarded with advertisements for nitrogen, for wormers, for sprays for this, for sprays for that, killing this, improving that, and I would pose a general question to the panel and to the audience as well; have we lost the art of sustainable mixed farming? Is this fire engine approach of buying something off a shelf and throwing it at your cattle or throwing it at your crops really a sustainable option, or should we be looking at some of the more rounded approaches that organic farming, in many cases, offers?”

Nuffield Scholar, Harper Adams alumnus, agronomist and non-organic farmer, Jo Franklin rounded out the panel’s individual contributions with a fascinating presentation that demonstrated quite clearly her multi-faceted approach to making her land work at its most productive with a best of all worlds approach.

“There’s something that we’re all skirting around; we’re all saying we’re farmers, and that’s lovely. I’m also a business woman and nothing happens on my farm without very, very good reason,” Jo explained.

She posed the question: “What is an agronomist?”, going on to try to dispel traditional views.

“We’ve heard from a couple of people already about agronomists and they’ve immediately linked that idea to the idea of ag-chem, which is interesting. Very interesting, because for me as an agronomist I try not to link too much to ag-chem. It’s part of what I have to do because it’s part of what most conventional farmers need, but it’s by no means the whole story. When I first put this presentation together after my Nuffield, I went and did a little bit of homework and I looked up what agronomist meant in the dictionary and I think it’s something you should all do. It will lead you on to describe an expert in crop husbandry. Go and look up crop husbandry, see what it says and put yourself together a definition of an agronomist. Nowhere does it mention ag-chems at all. And actually this definition that I put together really suited what I try and do in my job, which is look after the soil, look after the crop, look after how it’s established, its nutrition and actually everything comes into balance very nicely. So I’m not a conventional farmer, I’m not an organic farmer. I’m a farmer who needs to make money and look after my land to try and hand it on to my next generation in a better state than I received it.”

She shared graphs of the profitability of her land, which demonstrated a sharp increase in recent years, thanks to her approach that focuses on three fundamentals, which Jo calls N.O.B.s – Nutrients, Organic matter, Bugs – which she stressed were crucial whether you were an organic or non-organic farmer.

“Something you might not see an awful lot here at college is that there is more to life than N, P and K. Oxygen, carbon and hydrogen are actually the big three you need in all plants. How do you get them? You hope you get them through the roots and leaves. You might be surprised. If you can’t them up then you won’t get any of the other crop nutrients in.”

And for the ‘O’: “Organic matter is something all of the panel have mentioned, that they are trying to maintain and build organic matter. It’s something conventional arable farmers are really struggling with and one of you challenged the panel and said have we lost the art of being mixed, sustainable farmers? Yes we have, because we’ve all had to specialise to remain viable and maximise our productivity. Probably where we should be looking is now grouping those experts together and creating mixed farms, but with several different experts, rather than one person trying to be a Jack of all Trades. So organic matter is hugely important.”

Jo described, and showed photos of, the ‘perfectly balanced system’ of Professor John Ikerd, which she visited in Australia during her scholarship. It’s a very hands-off system that keeps the land productive by moving cattle then sheep over rich grazing land containing a mixture of plants, including chicory, lucerne, trefoils and more: “The action of the animals grazing and moving over the land does all of the cultivation and tillage needed to re-seed the pasture and fertilise it. There’s legumes in there which are fixing nitrogen to fertilise it. He has a very hands-off system. That system has allowed him to go from having to sell his farm, to sorting his level of succession out, to actually buying his generation out and buying another farm. So he taught me to look way outside the box, to ignore your neighbours completely.”

Jo went on to explain that, on returning home, she carried out extensive testing on her land and adopted the Albrect Technique, which is all about balancing nutrients and ensuring their even distribution through regular tests, including using a modern nitrogen tester to avoid over-applying where it is not needed.

Her key message was that a more rounded approach to the way you farm will always give you the better result – however you farm.

Jo summed up: “You don’t need to be heavy, heavy chemical and that’s all you think about and that’s all you do and just listen to an agronomist and completely go that way. You don’t need to be organic and completely go that way. There is a very happy middle ground and if more of us did that we would see a lot better change as a whole than if one 500-acre farmer goes organic.”

The presentations were interspersed with an array of questions for the individual speakers, followed by a general session at the end in which some of the key questions were asked by students and which highlighted some of the issues surrounding the debate.

Richard Jacobs said: “I think the event was just what we hoped it would be. It brought together both approaches to farming and I think it emphasised that there may be a gradual meeting of minds going on. The students are not being actively taught organic methods at the moment and that can only change with a better understanding of what the sector has to offer.

“We have to congratulate Imogen for bringing all of these experts together from across the country to share their widely varying experience and expertise and we can only hope that her enthusiasm and the topics discussed in front of the students, and some of their lecturers, will exercise their minds on the issues raised.”