Organic Producer Conference 2016

Phil shows the benefits of the costings tool

Another week, another conference: however the Organic Research Centre’s Organic Producer Conference is usually the most directly useful and practical conference for farmers and growrs, so definitely worth attending. After helping put up the Organic Growers’ Alliance stall in the lobby of the Novotel, Bristol on Wednesday morning, and catching up with lots of old friends, it was time for the plenary session, looking at common ground. The organic tradition can sometimes seem (or used to seem at least) rather inward-looking and defensive (probably partly due to derision and hostility from more chemically-reliant farming traditions); but the emphasis here was working together with all strands of the sustainable farming movement. The panel offered their visions for the future of farming and food, and heard throughts from Christine Gosling, an organic dairy farmer at Berkeley Farm; Phil Jarvis from the Game & Wildllife’ Trust’s Allerton Project; organic farmer Jonty Brunyee from the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association; and organic smallholder Jyoti Fernades from the Landworkers’ Alliance; chaired by Lawrence Woodward, ORC policy advisor. There weren’t necessarily any conclusions reached, but definitely some common goals, and it was a good starting point for the conference.

After lunch I went to the Business Tools and Support for New Entrants session; where Phil Sumption from the ORC introduced a new and free-to-use horticultural costings tool that the ORC have been working on, and which could prove very useful for keeping track of which crops are making money. Tony Little from the Sustainable Farming Consultancy then looked at support mechanisms for conversion to organic, especially financial support; in England converting to organic horiculture could see conversion grants of £400/ha for the first two years, then £200/ha for the next three (Wales has more generous offers). However currently the info from DEFRA is that these payments are based on a minumum claim of £5,000 over five years – which when you do the maths, works out at a minimum acreage of 8.8acres for horticulture (and a higher minimum for grazing/arable), so not suitable for smaller growers (hence the work the Landworkers Alliance is doing to highlight the disparity and unfairness of rewarding larger farms based on size alone, no matter how productive). Ruth West added that the A-Team challenge may be able to offer support to some small enterprises. Lastly Laura Creen, fellow ex-Future Grower and grower at School Farm CSA had sent in a video presentation since she was ill on the day and unable to attend. She told us the story of the farms she’s worked on; and also recommended Quick Book Online for easy accounting, as well as calling in concilliations services to help talk through issue with colleagues and business members.

After a tea break, I chose Tackling the Challenges of Organic Fruit & Viticulture: kicked off with a talk by Martin Soble of Carey Organic on the things he’d do differently when starting a top fruit orchard. As well as choosing varieties carefully for pest and disease resistance (especially scab), Martin also recommends choosing early and late varieties, to make the most of the extended season commercially. Also choosing varieties that have a consistent and even size is invaluable; and he also recommends growing well-known varieties such as Bramley for the best saleability options. He also suggests that rootstock charts be taken with a pinch of salt: some ‘dwarfing’ stocks can be very vigorous, so always best to go and have a look at some examples in the field if possible. He would prune harder, and earlier, with three of four big cuts a year, and thinning more. Next up was Will Davenport from Davenport Vineyards, who explained the problems of growing grapes organically. Weeds seemed to be the main challenge, requiring cultivations around the vines, and mowing the strips between rows in summer, introducing sheep in winter to keep grass down, which didn’t seem to damamge established vines. Ploughing under pans is needed every so often next to the vines to alleviate compaction, and Will is looking into the possibility of using trefoil help manage the weeds. He also recommended producing a dry white wine blend, since many new English vineyards are looking into sparkling white wines, which are very difficult to get right at an affordable price. Lucius Tamm from FiBL then gave us an update on the CO-FREE project, working with many partners across Europe to look at methods of reducing copper use in fruit production. He suggested that there is no silver bullet as a copper alternative; but that several management tactics can help reduce the use of copper.

This should have been the end of the day, but I had organised a fringe session on skilled workers, apprentices & volunteers, looking at the pros and cons of different types of labour, and how each type might suit various holdings and workers/volunteers. This was a great and varied discussion, much of which will feed into the planned report Future Farmers II: A guide to running a farm-based agroecological traineeship, due to be published in March as a joint collaboration with the OGA, Groundspring, Sustain, the CSA Network and other partners.

Parasitic wasp larvae emerge from a cabbage white caterpillar

The following day started bright and early with a session on protected cropping in organic systems. Rob Meijer from Wageningen UR previewed the results of the Biogreenhouse COST Action, sharing knowledge and best practice on protected cropping. Free booklets on various topics, such as food sprays for predatory mites using pollen, will be available for download from the website in April. Lucia Foresi from Coventry University also presented her piece on environmental imapcts of greenhouse horticulture, part of the COST project. Pete Dollimore from glasshouse specialist growers Hankham Organics then gave us a very useful presentation on encouraging pest predators into your protected cropping spaces; from planting yarrow to encourage an aphid in that only feeds on yarrow, and therefore attracting general aphid predators (such as ladybirds, whose large larvae can eat 50 aphid/day) to then move onto other aphid and pests; to leaving coriander to flower next to brassicas to encourage hoverflies for aphid and parasitic wasps which feed off cabbage white caterpillars. Pete plants low-growing poached egg plants to attract such predators among the cabbages too, and has seen a marked improvment; he also recommends growing calendula, borage, herbs and golden rod inside protected cropping spaces.

Roger shows Eliot Coleman’s immaculate weedless tunnel

After a tea break, I chaired the session on Customer Satisfaction: Ensuring Consistent Supply and Quality of Organic Food, which is key to any businesses success. Alan Schofield (Growing With Nature and chair of the OGA) took us through his successional cropping plan, highlighting the importance of consistent supply and good quality produce, and building in risk-management to your plans, sowing and planting a few extra of each crop, just in case. From the 1st of February, he sows Pixie cabbage, rocket, chard, spinach, spring onions, leaf beet and lettuce weekly for that month; then fortnightly in March and April onwards until late summer, along with carrots, beetroot, kohl rabi and fennel. Roger Hitchings (RMH Consulting) gave a presentation showing the importance of soil for quality and predictable/consistent crops, and how soil can be improved and managed well to get the best from your land. Adam York from Glebelands Market Garden then gave a talk on grading and presentation, and pointed out that poorly harested or kept veg brings the names of organic food down for all of us – so if you see some bad produce or poor displays, point them out, and make sure your own displays are up to scratch! He offered several tips for keeping harvesting times down and cooling produce in order to maintain quality and shelf-life, including the nice low-tech version of cold wet towels over produce when picking in the summer. An engaging discussion followed, with the room full of growers sharing tips and stories; then sadly the session time was over and we had to head for a quick lunch before the closing plenary.

This closing session looked at how change can happen globally, so much of the talks and discussion was more about policy than immediate practical stuff we can implement at home; however it is important to keep this bigger picture in mind – not least becuase the next time you write to your MP or vote in an election or referendum, these kind of sessions helps explain what it is you’re voting for.



Is There Such A Thing As ‘Free Labour’?

kate_collynsI am currently trying to arrange a fringe session looking at volunteers, skilled labour and apprenticeships at the Organic Research Centre’s Producer Conference (27th-28th January 2016); mulling over several issues that I’ve been pondering all year. On the one hand, I did a two-year apprenticeship (see my Soil Association blog here), and know the value of training, experience and mentorship when it comes to training up people for a new career. On the other hand, as a grower runnning a (very) small business, the idea of someone a) working for free sounds great on the face of it, or b) already trained up and competent is also attractive, ie needing less management time or training. In reality, actual labour falls somewhere along this sliding scale, of ‘free’ labour or volunteers, through low-skilled but paid-for workers and trainees eager to learn more, to highly skilled and experienced (usually more expensive) paid labour.

There are pros and cons of each type of course. ‘Free labour’ or volunteers rarely exist as just that (and why should they?): the reasons why people volunteer are varied: some want to gain work experience or skills in the short or medium term; some are filling in time between jobs or other commitments short-term; others are retired or otherwise independently wealthy so happy to be involved in a project they believe in (could be short, medium or long term); plus many others in between. New volunteers will need managing, especially very inexperienced people who may do more harm than good to your crops or plot; this is time you could have spent more profitably elsewhere on your own. Overall however, I think volunteers can be a great thing; as long as you, the grower or manager, have the right expectations. This is the important bit. Volunteers will (and should) expect something in return I feel; whether it’s skills and experience, to then go on and become a skilled and paid worker; being part of a group; making contacts; simply enjoying the work and being good for the soul (in which case it’s an idea not to give them all the rubbish and monotonous jobs to do); getting food/board in return (usually while also learning too, such as Wwoof)… Whatever the ‘reward’ is other than money, it’s probably not a great idea to view volunteers as ‘free labour’, as this can lead to volunteers feeling used and undervalued; and not staying for long. Plus there is a danger that if an industry or business relies on volunteers, it’s not sustainable, and gives food-growing and farming a repuation of being non-essential, a lifestyle choice or hobby, rather than a fundamental need such as health and education (would we expect our schools and hospitals to be filled with volunteers?). Skilled, paid-for workers and businesses employing them could be undermined by too much free labour and go out of business.

Trainees and apprenticeships are essential in an industry where the average age of growers is in the 50s-60s; a local food system will not exist in a few decades unless we seriously increase new entrants. However new trainees and apprentices don’t always have much experience (that’s why they’re doing the apprenticeship doing, after all), and will need some management and mentorship. However as dedicated, paid-for labour, they are committed, enthusiastic and often pick up skills quickly. Plus they often cost less than already skilled or trained workers; but as paid-for workers they are usually more reliable than volunteers.

Highly skilled and experienced workers are of course great: they need little management, take on lots of responsibility, and are very productive. However they are (and should be) at the top end of the labour costs spectrum, so can be a difficult option for small businesses to choose when looking at budgets. Like many things, it comes down to time and money: have you enough time to manage or train volunteers or trainees, and even redo some of their work/mistakes? Or is your time too precious and valuable, in which case perhaps a skilled employee is a better option?

In an ideal world, it would be great to take on all three types of labour of course: having enough money to pay trained people well, freeing up some of your time to dedicate to training up the next generation of growers, and allowing anyone who wanted to volunteer to be part of the family too, who may then be inspired to sign up to an apprenticeship. This I think is the goal; the real challange is trying to work out which type or combination of types of labour will get us there.

Prince Of Wales’ Food & Farming Summer School 16th-18th July

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 18.05.05This conference actually started today at the Organic Research Centre at Elm Farm in Newbury, but I had too much veg to pick, deliveries to make and beans to weed to attend the first day unfortunately. However I’m looking forward to going round Helen Browning’s Eastbrook Farm and Duchy Home Farm again tomorrow; and then further discussions on Friday back at Elm Farm, when I’ll be taking part in a panel on what the the future of UK farming will look like – I’ll be flying the flag for micro- and small-scale farms and smallholdings of course.

The school programme looks really interesting, and will gather together food industry leaders, researchers, civil servants, farmers and growers, charities and health professionals, to explore the problems of our current food system, and look at the many ways we can produce more food more sustainably. I’m really excited about the programme, and hope to convey the benefits of small scale farming and growing too (I will argue that we need micro, small, medium and large farms in order to meet future challenges); hopefully I can relay some of the excellent points made by the Land Workers’ Alliance too, showing that small economics can add up to big things. The new Food Research Council just published its Square Meal report this week too, so I suspect that much of this will be discussed: how to reconcile sustainable farming, enhancing nature, improving health and better food (choose organic, I hear you cry?!). Meanwhile hopefully my own place will behave itself and the weeds won’t go too beserk…