Maureen McCreath, a scientific officer with the project, said: 'Root fly is the major problem with organically grown cabbages and other brassicas. It can destroy 50 per cent of the crop. So we are using polypropylene netting to protect the crop from root fly. It also protects the cabbages from aphids and cabbage white caterpillars.'
The amount of sunlight reaching the crop is scarcely reduced at all by the netting which also keeps the land warm and moist. It is so fine that rain goes right through it. The netting can be laid down by special machines which cover its edges with soil to keep it in place.
The project which is being run by Rod McKinlay, a lecturer at Edinburgh University, with funds from the Scottish Office and the European Community, is looking for new ways to farm without chemicals. It also aims at reducing the dependency of farming on high energy inputs in the form of fuel.
'We want farming to be more sustainable - to use fewer inputs from outside the farm. This means using fossil fuels more judiciously,' Dr McKinlay said. 'Farmers are now interested in using fewer pesticides and fertilisers because it reduces costs, quite apart from it being better for the environment.'
He believes farmers may soon start growing their own engine fuel in the form of RME - rape methyl ester which can be extracted from rape seed by relatively simple machinery on the farm. Rotation of crops can be used to replace or reduce the use of chemicals.
'We are experimenting with rotation to find out how effective it is in fertilising the land and getting away from plastic bag farming. We grow grass and clover for three years which we plough back in as a green manure to fertilise the land. In the fourth year we grow wheat, then a root crop, and finally wheat again before repeating the cycle.'
Other developments are new types of machinery to control weeds - for example, a big brush on the back of a tractor to pull weeds out of the soil.
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