Prince revives forgotten skills of husbandry

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The Independent Online
The other organic farmers peered at Prince Charles's winter wheat and expressed wonder and praise.

"It's jolly impressive," said Will Best, who farms near Dorchester, in Dorset. "He's obviously getting the cultivation right. The crop's very even."

Patrick Holden, an early proponent of organic systems and director of the Soil Association which advocates them, was fulsome about the Highgrove experiment. "This is some of the best organic management you're likely to find anywhere," he said.

While the rest of the world might rank the Prince of Wales's enthusiasm for pesticide and fertiliser-free farming alongside his communications with plants, those who have seen it first hand know he is serious.

Duchy Home Farm, on the Prince's Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire, is a success story. David Wilson, the manager, knew nothing about time-honoured methods of husbandry such as crop rotation when he took on his post 16 years ago, but is a complete convert to the cause.

They are making a profit, milk yield is a respectable 5,500 litres per Ayrshire cow per year and they cannot supply enough of it. Use of antibiotics has been cut to 20 per cent of the norm in conventional farming and their veterinary bills have plummeted. The Prince wants to spread the word.

This week, on a trip organised by the Soil Association and funded by HiPP, the world's largest processor of organic produce, the Prince welcomed a mixed bag of thinkers and practitioners on to his estate to spark the debate.

John Byng, who heads the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's organic farming unit, mixed with Nicholas Weber, a buyer for Sainsbury's and Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods, a multi-million pound organic and health food company.

The issue was whether organic farming was viable. The mood was positive. Helen Browning, who organically farms 1,336 acres near Swindon, Wiltshire, said: "I feel bullish enough about the whole situation to say there is a financial incentive to convert now. If it is done well, farmers will make as much if not more money."

Mr Byng agreed. Only 0.3 per cent of land is farmed organically at present. But the MAFF's most recent research suggests that around 5 per cent of farmers would boost profits immediately if they changed to organic systems, not least because oil prices have sent the cost of fertilisers soaring.

The ministry is to launch a leaflet later this month telling farmers what to do. "We need to get the message across," Mr Byng said.

Consumer interest is growing, the farmers claim. Although dented by the recession, demand is up. The Organic Milk Supplies Co-operative has to import milk from Holland because home production is insufficient.

Peter Segger, of Organic Farm Foods, who supplies organic fruit and vegetables to supermarket chains, might support the cost of growers converting to overcome dependency on overseas crops. And Helen Browning is encouraging neighbours to become organic poultry farmers to meet the demand.

Fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy have helped by focusing public attention on the connection between farming methods and health. Jo Fairley, partner in Green and Blacks organic chocolate company, said sales have increased by 25 per cent since the "mad cow disease" scare began.

At the end of the afternoon at Highgrove, everyone drank tea and ate organic cakes. Only the men from the National Farmers' Union injected a note of cautious scepticism. They wondered what the total demand was for expensive organic foods and suggested that not all conventional farmers were baddies. Organic supporters sneered.

It left the only sour taste of the day.

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