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ICM approach proves successful for organic producer

As a recent market report from the Soil Association indicates a 7.1% growth in organic food and drink in the UK, more organic growers are turning to an integrated crop management (ICM) approach to ensure demand can continue to be met sustainably.

One such grower based in West Sussex explains how organics, and more specifically ICM, has become a vital part of their operations at a time when there are fewer crop protection products available to the organic sector in the UK.

Neil Cairns, senior farm manager at Barfoots Farms, is responsible for over 6,500 acres of organic and conventional crops, from planting right through to delivery to the factory.

“We grow a diverse range of crops at Barfoots, which we supply to Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

“Within this is between 120 to 150 acres of organic field crops including sweetcorn, courgettes and tenderstem broccoli,” he explains.

“Growing organic vegetables is a tough business. We have fertiliser issues, pests, diseases and weed concerns; all of which we have to control within stringent regulations and a limited number of options available for us to do so.”

Integrated Crop Management

“Pest and disease control continues to be an ongoing problem for us. For instance, there is consensus within the industry that the migratory diamond back moth is here to stay for the medium term.

“Last year we experienced significant populations of the diamond back moth caterpillar in our tenderstem broccoli, which caused us major issues, through defoliation of the plants, which in turn limited growth.

“At the moment, there is no complete organic solution to these issues, which is why we use an ICM approach across our organic and conventional crops," says Mr Cairns.

Selchuk Kurtev, IPM manager at Certis UK explains how an ICM approach is the chosen approach for many organic growers.

“In order to get the most out of the products that are available to the organic sector, the whole environment needs to be correct, and the cultural and biorational control methods used must all need to be taken into consideration for the production of successful organic crops.

“Growers really do need to focus on an ‘entire crop approach’ across the farm when it comes to crop protection. Sometimes changes of practice are needed to better suit the performance of biorationals, for example, delayed planting or drilling can improve pest and disease control levels.”

Mr Cairns explains how he has put this approach into practice, through the use of old and new technologies.

“We’ve used advances in agricultural technology to help us keep on top of weeds within the organic vegetables. We have robotics mounted to the tractors, which allow us to see between the plants. The system takes an image and this triggers a knife between the plants, which weeds mechanically for us, cutting down on the need for weed control products.

“We also sow a lot of our marginal land with nectar mixes to encourage beneficial insects, and plan for the margins to flower at different times of the year, so we have plenty of food to attract different beneficial organisms.

“We use a traditional English flower meadow mix and cornflowers, right the way through the year, to attract insects such as lace wings and parasitic wasps. Within the organic courgettes, we use specific pollination mixes, which then attract bees into the crop to pollinate the crop itself.”

Biorational technology

“As new biorational products come onto the market, we’re quickly learning how they might be able to help us control pests and diseases within our organic crops more efficiently," says Mr Cairns.

“We use biorationals in our conventional crops already with good results, so we know the benefits they can have and aim to replicate this within the organic vegetables through our conversations with Certis.

“We’re currently investigating a garlic based biorational product for control of cabbage root fly in organics, and we’ve been looking at Karma specifically for disease control in tenderstem broccoli.

“We hope to be able to introduce these at planting and drilling this season and going forward, I think biorationals will make it easier for us to produce organic crops.

“However, there is a lot of learning required across the industry with regards to getting the most from biorationals within organic produce.”

“Micro-biologicals have huge potential in the organic sector, and as a result, this is typically where a lot of research and development is focused”, explains Mr Kurtev.

“What differentiates these from traditional chemistry is the way they behave in the environment, and the fact that they are derived from naturally occurring compounds and native flora and fauna. This is an important consideration for organic growers.

“For example, the active component in many micro-biologicals such as Beauveria bassiana can be found in any UK garden, and introducing macro-biologicals such as predatory mites and parasitic wasps, means that there are less workforce safety issues.

“Another key benefit of biorational products is that they can work well within a low residue programme. Because the products are all derived from naturally occurring substances, Biorationals often don’t have maximum residue levels or as restrictive harvest intervals as conventional products and therefore crops can be harvested to suit the grower’s schedule. This is so very important when juggling multiple types of organic crops with different planting, drilling and harvesting programmes such as with Barfoot Farms.”

Consumer demand

Mr Cairns explains why organic crop production is becoming more of a priority for Barfoots Farms.

“Organic vegetables are becoming an increasingly important part of our business, which is as a result of growing consumer demand.

“In particular, tenderstem broccoli seems to be bucking the trend with consumers, who are choosing it over standard organic broccoli.

“Therefore, we have to look at new ways of protecting our organic crops to ensure we can continue to meet demand. The growth of the organic industry has a direct effect on our priorities on the farm, and this means we’re taking our focus on integrated crop management for our organics division to the next level.”

The trends are not surprising, as Mr Kurtev reiterates.

“Consumer attitudes are changing, as is their perception and understanding of where their food comes from.

 “As a result of organic growers and farmers having an even more limited crop protection armoury compared to conventional, they therefore need to be one step ahead of pests and diseases. This is why more and more growers have embraced biorationals and ICM to improve production techniques.”

The future

Mr Cairns reflects on what the future might hold for organic vegetable production across the industry.

“I believe in twelve months’ time there will have been a notable step-change within the organic crop production sector. We will all have more of a focus on ICM, and biorationals will play a key part in this. Lessons learnt from the protected sector will be taken up within field and broadacre crops, and growers will be better positioned to implement new products within their organic ICM strategies.

“ICM provides us with long-term methods of managing pests, diseases and weeds, and that is of the utmost importance for both the organic and conventional sectors. It’s all about sustainable crop production,” he concludes.