Vine House Farm - Organic Farming

Nicholas Watts explains how organic farming has been both a commercial success at Vine House Farm, and played a part in a wider strategy to improve breeding numbers of farmland birds.

In 1982 I started recording the numbers of breedingbirds on our farm, and by 1992 I had recorded such a big drop of breedingskylarks and corn buntings that it worried me. So I started to consider how Icould change the way we farmed and for the benefit of wildlife and specificallythe species of bird which were in decline, whilst still ensuring of course thatour farming operation was commercially viable.

For the first summer I started to treat ourset-aside land in a wildlife friendly way, but that was only on 10% of ourland. After 4 years of that I thought that it might be better for the birds andeasier for me if we farmed organically, so that is what we now do on 300 acresof the land at Vine House Farm. I would have converted more land to organicproduction if I wasn’t growing bird seed. I cannot grow bird seed organicallyas what we grow as bird seed is usually grown in France. To be able to harvestit we have to kill the plants with a chemical to make them ripen early whichwould not be allowed organically.

The only way I could think of getting paid to haveweeds in my crops was to farm organically. I don’t actually get paid for havingweeds in my crops but because I farm organically I will have weeds in my cropsand because I farm organically I get a higher price per ton for my crops. Farmingorganically has increased bird numbers slightly but not as much as I would haveexpected.

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My decisionto turn 300 acres over to organic farming was purely to benefit wildlife. Birdshave to feed their nestlings on moist food, they cannot take their young water,the water has to be included in the food and that moist food is meat, fat,fruit or unripe seeds. Meat being anything that we know as meat down to insectsand most of our farmland birds feed their young on insects. The insects feed onthe weeds but in our crops to day there are very few weeds and so very fewinsects.

By recording the birds on the farm it hascompletely altered my way of farming, it has led me into selling bird seed. Weare the largest sunflower grower in the UK and probably the largest grower ofmillet in the UK, growing over 400 acres of bird seed and we are also growingvegetables and some other crops organically.

The main crops we grow organically are wheat,barley, fodder radish, red clover, rye grass and a selection of vegetables forthe farm shop.

Most of these crops we grow for seed, for otherorganic farmers to grow on their land. We used to grow quite a lot of vegetablecrops for supermarkets but we never received any thanks for working in the rainor for working 7days a week and we didn’t get any price rises so we graduallystopped that and we started growing crops for seed.

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