Five organic farmers in North East Scotland have launched a pilot project with a commercial feed processor to try and grow the UK’s first viable organic oil seed rape crop for the animal feed supply chain.
The group, supported by the Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS), was formed to meet a need for locally grown organic protein for pigs and poultry.
Picture: Front L- R Organic farmers Murray Cooper, Martin Birse and George Philip. Back L-R researcher Robin Walker, agronomist Andy Cheetham, and David McClelland of Norvite
“At the moment we’re sourcing organic feed materials from as far away as China,” says David McClelland, technical director of Scottish feed manufacturer Norvite, “but we have a local market for it. If we can get a local supply it represents a huge opportunity for us and the farmers."
“I don’t know of anyone in the UK growing organic oil seed rape on a commercial scale,” says Murray Cooper, of mixed organic farm Mains of Thornton near Inverurie. “It’s notoriously difficult to grow.
Picture: Murray Cooper
"But growing it ourselves would give us control, reduce our reliance on imported soya - sometimes of questionable origin - plus it will reduce our fuel footprint. And in Norvite we already have a processor."
Innovation field trip to Sweden
Seven group members recently returned from a study trip to Sweden, where they visited several farmers successfully growing organic oil seed rape. “Sweden is on the same latitude as Scotland with a very similar climate,” says Cooper, “so it was really encouraging to see them growing it.”
Research agronomist Robin Walker of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) went on the trip. He says: “The Swedes grow 10,000 hectares of organic oilseed rape annually out of a national total of approximately 110,000, so they clearly know what they’re doing.”
“The tricky bit is the weeding of it,” adds Cooper. “We’re not really geared up for it here but over there they have a machine that sows, fertilises and does interrow weeding. I’m talking to the other farmers about how we might get one for use here.”
A helping hand from RISS
Norvite spotted the need for local supply a couple of years ago and had been talking to organic farmers in the region about it, but it was the facilitation provided by the Rural Innovation Support Service – in the form of Jim Booth, head of co-op development at the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) – that helped get things off the ground.
Picture: Visiting organic oil seed rape plantations in Sweden
“They’d been talking for a while, so it was great to be able to give them a bit of support and direction,” says Jim Booth. “This is really innovative stuff, bringing people together from along the whole supply chain for a common objective.”
"Organic farmers are by nature innovative"
“I think organic farmers are by nature innovative,” says McClelland. “They, perhaps by necessity, have a willingness to try things out and they’re not scared of failure. We’re excited about this process – these farmers see the opportunity, we have a market, and with support from RISS there’s that one person who pulls it all together.”
Alongside other farmers in the North East - Martin Birse of Pitgaveny Farms, Elgin, Gordon Whiteford of Lower Mill of Tynet Farm, Buckie, George Philip of Camphill School farm, Aberdeen, and Willie Mitchell of AA Carrots, Turriff - Cooper will plant oilseed rape in a trial field in September. “I’ll plant it with spring beans and winter barley - that way I’m guaranteed a crop,” Cooper says. There’s a risk of crop failure with oil seed rape every five years, but the group believes that with specific techniques of planting and weeding, as Swedish farmers have developed, this can be overcome.
“Initially agronomist logic was that spring planting would be better,” says McClelland, “but we learned from Sweden that autumn planting starts the growth, then it’s ready for a flying start in spring and can outperform the weeds.”
The group has another 10 or so farmers watching with interest and is looking for funding to develop the plantations as rigorous trials that will create a blueprint for growing oil seed rape nationally. But with or without it, they will plant come autumn.
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