Select Committee on European Communities Sixteenth Report


Visit by the Sub-Committee on 15 April 1999 to
Duchy Home Farm, Highgrove, and Eastbrook Farm, Bishopstone

In the morning the Sub-Committee visited the Duchy Home Farm at Highgrove. Mr David Wilson, the Farm Manager, gave a presentation on the farm and its conversion to organic status, and then gave a tour of various parts of the farm. In the course of the presentation and subsequent discussions the following points were made:

(i)  The farm covers a total of 1080 acres, situated around the town of Tetbury. 3 other sites are also share-farmed, covering a total of c. 600 acres. Mr Wilson began work at the farm in 1985. In 1986 they experimented with organic methods on a small parcel of land. At first a major barrier to converting to organic methods was psychological: they did not fully believe that they could produce successfully without the aid of inputs from the large chemical companies. Most of the farm was converted by 1992, and it was entirely organic by 1995. Most of the land therefore missed out on the Organic Aid Scheme.

(ii)  There are a variety of soils and pH's around the farm. There are 130 Ayrshire dairy cows, which are well suited to organic production, 99 Aberdeen Angus single sucklers and 500 breeding ewes. There is now an organic pig unit, which is operated on their land by a contractor. They have recently begun a small organic vegetable enterprise, which has been particularly useful as it has put the farm in direct contact with the marketplace. It was Mr Wilson's impression that organic farmers generally have closer contacts with their markets, which helps them to determine their priorities on the farming side.

(iii)  Mr Wilson spoke about the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative, which began in 1994. 5 different farms, including Duchy Home Farm, have now contracted to supply 2.5 million litres of organic milk to a major yoghurt maker at 29.5 pence per litre. Beef and lamb is being sold to a number of butchers, and increasingly to the Organic Livestock Marketing Company. Organic farmers have increasingly been able to detach organic prices from conventional prices, so that the organic price is not "conventional price + x" but a figure that takes into account the production costs of the organic system.

(iv)  They operate a 7-year rotation, typically:
Years 1 to 3Grass and red or white clover. This is used for grazing and silage.
Year 4:Winter wheat.
Year 5:Spring oats.
Year 6:Spring beans.
Year 7:Rye.

(Set-aside is fitted in. Mustard is a good set-aside crop as it smothers other plants, brings up nutrients and can then be chopped up and ploughed back into the field).

(v)  The farm also maintains some rare breeds and crop types in order to keep alive their genes, for example a few Gloucester cattle, some large black sows and rare wheats.

(vi)  The crop varieties and animal breeds which have been developed for conventional agriculture are not necessarily well suited for organic agriculture. Conventional wheat has been bred short to help nitrogen take-up and ensure that it does not get flattened, but Mr Wilson prefers wheat which grows high and can out-compete weeds. He has not yet seen it go flat.

(vii)  Mr Wilson said that in conventional agriculture the use of nitrogen fertilisers increases water take-up, reduces the width of the cell wall (leading to more disease problems), and increases the plant's sugar content (making it more attractive to aphids).

(viii)  One reason to keep organically farmed fields fairly small (c. 20 acres) is that the hedges contain a nucleus of predators. If there is a pest problem in a particular field, the predators will expand their numbers to deal with them.

(ix)  Manure is composted and then spread on the grass and clover leys.

In the afternoon the Sub-Committee visited Eastbrook Farm, Bishopstone, which is farmed by Mrs Helen Browning. The Sub-Committee saw various parts of the farm, and in the course of discussions the following points were made:

(i)  The farm covers 1300 acres, and is a mixed arable, dairy and meat (beef, pigs and sheep) farm. The land is owned by the Church of England. Conversion began in 1986, and the last block of land went into conversion in 1995.

(ii)  There are two pedigree Friesian-Holstein dairy herds. The milk is sold through the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative. The pig unit has expanded rapidly in the last few years, using a cross between the Duroc and the British Saddleback. The sheep breeds are North Country Mules and Hebridean ewes. They prefer to use traditional breeds of livestock which are often hardier than modern breeds, but modern varieties of crops such as wheat are used.

(iii)  As the Duchy Home Farm, Eastbrook uses red clover leys in its rotations for restoring soil fertility.

(iv)  There is also an Eastbrook Farms Organic Meat Company, which purchases meat from the farm and other accredited suppliers. There is a shop in the nearby village of Shrivenham, and meat is also sold to supermarkets and direct to people's homes by direct delivery.

(v)  The farm produces veal in an "animal-friendly" way. The farm literature explains that "male issue from the dairy herd leave their mothers at three or four days old and are put with nurse cows who are retired from the main milking herd. They stay with their nurse mothers for the next six months, overwintering in our new calf house or grazing in the fields during the summer months".

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