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ORC Producer Conference 2013 – in review

Date Published: 25/01/2013

OF&G’s Research and Development Officer, Steven Jacobs, was one of the members of our team at this year’s key producer conference. Here he shares his thoughts and experiences of the two-day event, with some help from a touch of musical inspiration:

The drive to Aston University was not easy. The roads were icy and snow covered cars queued up to join those roads that had been cleared.

Organic Research Centre Conference 2013
Another well-attended ORC conference, with your author peeking in to the right…

Looking at the weather and the traffic I started to think about the resilience of the farming community in the face of this awful growing year we’ve had (and are still having) and I heard a Billy Bragg lyric in my head that seemed to capture the moment:  “Don’t become demoralised by scurrilous complaint, its a sure sign that the old world is terminally quaint… and tomorrow’s gonna be a better day… we’re going to make it that way.” It’s not a big toe tapping number but I like the sentiment.

And so I entered the 2013 Organic Research Centre (ORC) Organic Producer’s Conference with a philosophical frame of mind.

It is always a good event. Well organised and well attended. Another chance to meet up with people many of who you otherwise rely on electronic forms of communication to engage with. And this year ORC said this was their biggest ever conference.

After a very full day of talks and discussions on the Tuesday I spoke to Nic Lampkin, ORC Director at dinner that night and he told me that 175 people were gathered in the dining room. At a time when headlines scream economic crises and considering the horrendous weather both from the terrible growing and harvesting seasons but also looking out of the window and seeing the snow falling all around us at the conference venue at Aston University in Birmingham the commitment and enthusiasm of the conference delegates was extraordinary and very welcome.

The conference runs simultaneous workshops which helps them stuff in a bewildering amount of material but can lead to one’s head feeling rather full up!

Rather than list all of the presentations I witnessed here are some of the highlights from where I was sitting. For more you might want to look up the #ORC13 hashtag on twitter. Delegates were quoting and commenting throughout the two day conference.

ORC Director Nic Lampkin welcomed everyone to the conference and encouraged people to go online and complete the questionnaire on the EU organic regulation (background to the consultation – and the online questionnaire – )

I went to a number of sessions with a variety of talks and presentations.

Organic Research Centre Conference 2013
A huge variety of topics came under the spotlight.

Philip Cooke of Coombe Farm dairy who supply organic milk for Waitrose told us: “Organic really works for us… It put our business back in line with the values we hold dear.” And Philip said he was excited to say Waitrose are currently seeing a significant uplift in organic dairy sales, contrary to popular belief.

John Pawsey, organic arable farmer and member of Organic Arable gave an excellent talk on producing organic cereals from his perspective in Suffolk. His grandfather would castigate the young John if he came in to lunch having not pulled all, yes all, of the weeds from the fields. John told us he wishes he’d listened more intently at the time. The message was to get on top of weeds sooner rather than being smothered later on.

And he told us that focussing on your techniques as a farmer is key to getting a product to market: “Get your rotation right then you can focus on your market.”

Kate Collyns is a small scale horticultural grower. She said connecting with the people who buy your produce is a wonderful way to promote successful trading: “All of my customers, all of my chefs have been on my holding to see what I do. Customer loyalty is very important.”

Paul Mader of the FiBL the Swiss organic agricultural research institute told us about some exciting organic farming research. TILMAN-ORG is a long term pan European research project in different soils to see benefits or otherwise of low or no tillage techniques in organic arable systems –

One example of what they’ve been looking at is the direct sowing of soybean in rye. The mature rye has a roller taken over it twice. The rye is damaged and so stops being a productive cereal itself but acts as a good mulch.

Worm counting was the essence of a great talk by Heather McCalman of IBERS –

The PROSOIL project is looking for a ‘better understanding of soil management’. It has only just started so no conclusions yet.

Organic Research Centre Conference 2013Jon Wilson of Holt Farms home of the Yeo Valley dairy herd told us about their approach to soil care with clover, minerals, compost & twice yearly aeration. Jon said they are always observing and always learning. By adding agricultural salt each year to their fields they can raise the levels of sodium that is taken up by their forage which helps to reduce copper lock up.

Andrew Trump of Organic Arable gave a good description of the Eric Gallandt approach to weed control – – The aim is to hit the weeds at every vulnerable point from insect and mammalian predation to pulling, cutting and competing with persistent weed plants.

Jonathan Storkey of Rothamstead gave a little more detail on this approach by looking at the timing in the life cycle of weed plants. He said by focusing your efforts, being methodical and taking opportunities where you can you will begin to understand your weeds down to the seed. Their research looks at weed seed germination, size, number and most importantly timing –

There we have it after two days of a phenomenal amount of information exchange and knowledge sharing of which I can only put here a sliver, a glimpse of the talks and thoughts.

Lawrence Woodward OBE introduced the final plenary session of the conference on the subject of on sustainable intensification and agroecology in achieving sustainable food security sustainably.

Nadia Scialabba from the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the Untied Nations (FAO) and David Gould of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) started the ball rolling.

But for me the best words came from the floor. Delegates were clear and concise in their criticism of the term ‘sustainable intensification’. One example was “sustainable intensification is like sustainable growth i.e. not possible, is an oxymoron” and another “you can’t have year on year growth, so how can you have year on year intensification”.

As Lawrence Woodward said: “The Bio-Economy or the Green Economy, we are still encouraged to keep on consuming.”

I felt the organic community here in the UK are strong, open and working very hard to deliver a sustainable food system from the smallest growers to the largest and by selling direct or through large multiple retailers. I think the message from the ORC conference this year was loud and clear: The organic community does as Curtis Mayfield so wonderfully sang it,  ‘We just keep on keeping on’. There is a lyric in that song that can apply to us and to seeds in general: “Most of your life can be out of sight. Withdraw from the darkness and look to the light.”

So, I’m putting my dancing shoes on – actually they’re my walking boots but in this weather needs must!