The challenges presented by an organic conversion have helped one family forge a successful arable enterprise, as Angela Calvert found out.
If good management and attention to detail are the secret to successful organic farming, then it is certainly working for Pollybell Organic Farm, voted Organic Grower of the Year 2008.
Pollybell Farm is the organic farming business of Loveden Estates, which is owned by the Brown family, who have been involved in farming in Lincolnshire for over 120 years.
It covers 5,000 acres on the Isle of Axeholme, on the borders of South Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.
All the land lies at or below sea level and is protected and drained by a network of drains and dykes, which crisscross the farm. The River Idle runs through the farm.
Pollybell Farm, named after a bridleway on the farm, was originally, made up of 12 individual farms but was bought by the Brown family 15 years ago – organic conversion began in 1997.
“The conversion to organic was very much consumer driven and a commercial decision,” says finance director James Brown, “but it is also in keeping with what we feel is the right way to farm.
“However, it is a challenging way to farm – there is no chemical solution to problems for us. So we work hard with planning and rotations to avoid problems in the first place, resolving them organically is expensive, as it usually involves manual labour.
Most of the land is sand over peat, sand over clay and peat and gravel with variation within fields.
“We have to manage the crop to the land, we can’t add nutrients, so we need to be very flexible and understand the farm.”
Around 3,000 acres has currently been converted or is in conversion, leaving the remaining 2,000 acres to be farmed conventionally and wheat, peas, linseed, carrots and sugar beet are grown on this. However, where the same type of crop is grown on both parts of the farm, different varieties are grown to avoid any potential problems.Meeting demand
The importance of rotation, in the organic crops, cannot be underestimated and at Pollybell Farm consists of brassicas, followed by first wheat, then pulses (peas and beans), then vegetables (potatoes and carrots and other specialist crops), followed by a second cereal of wheat, barley or rye and finally a grass fertility build, which may be one or two years.
A wide variety of vegetable are grown comprising broccoli, several varieties of cabbage, beetroot, cauliflower and other more unusual crops, such as celeriac.
“We will grow whatever if are asked to, even in small quantities, as long as it is commercially viable, we are happy to do it,” says James.
“But we can’t grow a crop and hope that someone will take it at the end of the year. We have a home for everything we grow.
“More capital is required to farm organically – seed and plants are more expensive and labour costs are higher. We cannot afford to grow things on spec.”
All the vegetables currently go to the major multiples, via packers, leaving the farm in bulk, although the possibilities of supplying a national box scheme and small specialist wholesalers are also being considered.
Carrots, which are all lifted by hand, with the tops left on, are bunched and washed on farm.
Cereals are all sold as feed for the livestock industry, although again, premium markets are being investigated.
Day-to-day management of the farm is down to Ewan Fraser, with Peter Cornish as commercial director, who also manages the other farming interests of Loveden Estates. There are 15 full-time staff and up to 90 part-time staff, who are a mix of English and foreigners.
“We so far, haven’t had too many staff problems,” says James.
“We are fortunate in that we can offer work right through from March to November, which helps and we have a lot of regulars, who come back year after year and are good at what they do.“However, potential staff shortages and costs are very much on the radar, which is one reason why we are investing in the latest mechanical technology to tackle jobs previously done by hand.”
The peat land can be prone to a heavy weed burden so every opportunity is taken to knock weeds out.
“Every weed which is left one year is creating additional problems for the following year, so we need to keep on top of them and if necessary we will take a field out of production and leave it fallow for a year.
“All the land is ploughed and well worked up before planting and drilling as it is essential to have a clean seed bed,” he says.
Two years ago the company invested in an ‘intelligent hoe,’ which is now used on combinable crops. It has a camera mounted on the toolbar, which views the crops and the image captured is scanned to find higher concentrations of green pixels. It is proved to be very effective for both grass weeds and deeper rooted species, such as docks and sow thistles.
This year has seen the addition of another interplant camera guided hoe, which works on the same principle, but is used on brassicas.
It weeds between individual plants along the row, as well as between the rows. A rotating blade goes between plants and each row has its own camera and individually controlled discs.
“By making use of the latest technology, we are less reliant on labour,” he says. “Until recently, apart from using grass harrows on cereals, all weeding had to be done by hand. It also means that if we are using a machine we will give the crop several passes, whereas if it was being done by hand it would only get one.”
Another challenge is providing a constant supply of product throughout the season, which requires careful planning.
Carrots are planted in 16 separate blocks, with the aim of lifting one each week. The carrot blocks are surrounded by and separated with strips of rye, which when harvested is likely to be sold for muesli.
It has been planted to act as both a barrier against disease and as wind protection for the blocks of carrots, as one of the disadvantages of the light land is that it blows away.
There is the facility to irrigate the entire farm and plans are underway to build two reservoirs, as James says, “we have got to be able to control our own water for both the quality and quantity.”
There is always between 600 and 700 acres of grassland on the farm at any one time, which is made up of grass in the rotation or conversion and permanent grass on riverbanks and other areas.
“We have no livestock and don’t want to go down that road as we prefer to focus on our core business,” says James.
“We are actively looking for someone who would be able to make use of the grass and some of the surplus buildings we have – possibly to start a business producing and marketing organic lamb.
“We are open to suggestions and would be prepared to make some financial investment to help someone start a business here.”
Conservation plays a huge part on the farm – winter stubbles are left to provide food and shelter for birds, boxes are put up for owl and there are 240 bird feeding stations on the farm and last year 187 species of birds were recorded.
In addition, 48 acres of woodland, 2,934 trees and 21,660 metres of hedgerows have been planted and three SSSI’s are looked after.
In 2005, the farm won the Jas Martin Lincolnshire Grey Partridge Trophy and in 2006 won its category of the British Trust of Ornithology Business Bird Challenge.
The farm is making the best use of technology, while at the same time farming in harmony with the environment and providing what the customer wants.