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Virtues of elephant grass sold to farmers: Oliver Gillie reports from the Royal Agricultural Show on a new concept in sustainable farming

BIOMASS is becoming a new buzz word for farmers who have land to set aside from food production. At the Royal Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, yesterday farmers were being exhorted to grow elephant grass, willow coppice and trees - to produce biomass.

Elephant grass (Miscanthus), a relative of sugar cane, is a highly-efficient way of producing energy from the land. German farmers are producing large quantities of the grass, which can be burned to give the energy equivalent of eight tons of oil per hectare, or made into useful products - such as chipboard.

Poplar and willow coppice are a more traditional way of growing biomass, although it was not called that 100 years ago when coppices had a more natural place in the order of things. Coppice was used to provide fencing and building materials - branches were lopped off as needed from the growing stem. Now its value as a method not only of using set-aside land but of absorbing run-off from livestock pens, is being realised.

If biomass production takes off, parts of Britain will become impenetrable thickets of elephant grass or coppice. Organic farmers, who do not use pesticides or fertilisers, offer a method of food production which is sustainable. But they claim that the Government is giving them insufficient support.

Patrick Holden, a dairy farmer and director of British Organic Farmers, said: 'Organic farming is the most cost-effective and efficient way of reducing output and protecting the environment - pounds 150m will be paid to farmers to set aside alone in 1993-94. It is making farmers into glorified park keepers. The money could be spent on organic farming.'

So far, organic farmers have succeeded in getting only pounds 1m from the Government to underwrite them. They were upset yesterday when Gillian Shephard, the Minister for Agriculture, visited the stand alongside theirs at the show to talk to executives of earth-moving equipment, and did not call on them.

'We would like to see help from the Government to match that given to German farmers,' Mr Holden said. 'After just one year of encouragement 2 per cent of east German land is producing organic food and 5 per cent of some west German states are now organic. The Germans, and the Dutch, are getting a large part of the organic market in Britain as a result.'

But Mrs Shephard said that organic farmers have been given a generous slice of her budget and John Gummer, her predecessor, who is now Secretary of State for the Environment, said that significant sums of taxpayers' money were being spent to help organic farmers do what they wanted.

Mrs Shephard held up as an example the Cambridge farmer who sold 5 million heads of lettuce and celery to Spain and Italy last year. This achievement - farming's equivalent of selling refrigerators to Eskimos - repeatedly mentioned at farming conferences, is providing a near-impossible role model for farmers.

For most farmers at the show, the problems of organic farmers and biomass production were far away. Reality is the judging of pigs and cattle - the prizes for palomino ponies, Irish draught horses, beef shorthorn and dairy goats.

Among the hundreds of stalls, selling everything from tractors to the latest seeds, a farmer might settle down to consider the merits of a Streetsmart telephone, sticky roll of flypaper or an all-dancing inflatable scarecrow.

(Photograph omitted)