There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the differences and advantages/disadvantages of conventional food versus organic food. A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition earlier in July stated that organic crops are up to 60% higher in antioxidants than conventionally-grown ones, and that there are significantly lower levels of toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead in organic crops, which, interestingly enough, contradicts a 2009 study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) that found there were no significant nutritional benefits to be had through eating organic food. And only last week a report was published revealing that 63% of bread in supermarkets contains pesticide residues, 25% of which has residues of more than one pesticide. It’s tricky to know what to believe and a large part of the problem is that lots of people don’t really know what organic food production means – myself included! To solve this problem, at the beginning of July I went to visit Pertwood Organic Farm in Wiltshire to see what ‘organic’ really looks like.
Lower Pertwood Farm has been organic since 1988, its entire 1850 acres certified by the Soil Association. Currently owned by Wilfred Mole, who also farms in South Africa at Sandstone Estates, Pertwood has its own range of wheat-free breakfast cereals, as well as supplying oats to muesli and porridge brand Alara, which is 100% organic. As soon as I go through the gate the farmland has an atmosphere of both tranquillity and energy, giving me the feeling of how alive it is. Immediately I spot buzzards and hear swallows chattering. Mr Mole is enthusiastic about the farm, pointing out ancient Celtic longbarrows (human-made mounds involved in crop rotation) in the nearest fields which he’s not allowed to touch, and high up a chalk strip which is a new pipeline being put in by Wessex Water. He shows me the long mound of topsoil that they dug up about six months ago.
“Look at that,” Mr Mole says, grinning. “They just pile up this crummy soil and the plants love it to bits. The mound’s got every sort of plant known to man growing on it – crops, weeds, flowers. It would actually be interesting to do a plant population analysis to see what’s there.”
The plant life is unbelievably impressive, and I can’t help feeling it wouldn’t be so teeming if the farm wasn’t organic. Amazingly, Mr Mole has made a deal with Wessex Water to turn the pipeline land into an RSPB reserve when they’re finished. It’s a running theme here; following the ethos of farming ‘with nature’s best interests at heart’, this year 30 acres of land are being turned into wildflower meadows in order to create an ideal habitat for bees and butterflies. This, with a bit of luck, will have the added bonus of increasing crop yields.
Mr Mole shows me one of the fields which is going to become a wildflower meadow, just beside the main road. “It’s never been a great field,” he says. “It’s really high up, on the crest. We can probably break even with the crop but you may as well plant flowers on it instead.”
As we bump along the fields in his battered 4×4, Mr Mole explains how organic farming works. They rotate their crops with livestock and clover lay, and there are no chemicals or fertilisers involved other than muck from cows. “What you do in organic is to build the fertility of the fields you rotate. You keep about a third of the farm in grass and clover which reinvigorates the land and it’s good for the livestock.” A lot of the fields I see are what’s called fallow, where after a crop has been harvested and ploughed, they leave the grass or clover to grow for a year, during which time they cut it for silage and re-grow it (all the while letting sheep or cattle graze on it), and only then do they plant seed for the next crop. Doing all this continually replaces nutrients, improves soil fertility, helps control pests, protects the soil from erosion and supports biodiversity.
“If you look at that field there the grass grows like mad and then you look at what grows in a classic example of a conventional farm; it’s not nearly as vibrant. When you walk through conventional farms you see how brutal they are – there are no hedges, there’s nothing. I’m growing a hedge now, in bits and pieces, but in total there will be 2 miles of it.”
Stopping beside an oat field, we get out to have a closer look at a typical organic crop. I am astonished at what I see – at first glance it looks like a field full of weeds. When we lean in closer, I literally can’t see the earth below. There are daisies, poppies, charlock, grass and loads of other plants I can’t identify. I instantly realise I’ve never seen a crop like this before; every other crop I’ve ever walked past or run through has been a conventional one.
Mr Mole points to the long wispy stems, a pale but shimmering green. “These are the oats and if you look here you’ll lose count of the plants. There are flowers, there are weeds. It’s very natural, that’s the first impression you get, whereas a conventional crop is spotless, abnormally so. The good news is that the oats have generally outgrown the other plants and because it’s been such a good year they’ve been totally unaffected – they’ve got sun on their back and they’ve got wet feet, so what more do they need? The fact they’ve got a neighbour doesn’t matter.”
When the crop is harvested it has to be cleaned, meaning that if there are any remaining seeds from plants other than oats, the mix is put through a screen so they’re left only with oats to turn into porridge or muesli.
The other thing I notice is that there are no track-mark lines which are usually so prevalent in conventional fields. Because Pertwood’s fields aren’t sprayed with pesticides or chemicals, there’s no need for tractors. Mr Mole has actually sold lots of his tractors because they were sitting around all day doing nothing. “From the day we plant the crop there’s nothing we can do,” he says. “We just leave it.”
He admits that sometimes there are traces of disease within the crops, but this is no bad thing. “The plants might get slightly ill but every time you’re slightly ill you’re building your immunity for it not to happen again, and every time you’re given artificial, synthetic things for combating that your immune system is pushed to one side. Why not just see if the plants can cope on their own?”
Carrying on to another field Mr Mole remarks that the oats in it are much thicker. “We don’t always know why; it could be muck related. There are fewer flowers and the weeds are suffering more because the crop is so strong. It’s all about light. It’s a win win in organic – if you can get it right, the crop deals more effectively with the weeds.”
I comment on the abundance of insects hopping, flying and fluttering around, many of them butterflies, and immediately Mr Mole tells me it’s because the crops and fields aren’t sprayed. They really do have such a natural and buzzing feel to them which is lacking throughout most farmland in Britain.
The next thing I see is a field that’s just been ploughed, at the edge of which is something called a beetle bank separating it from the next one. This is one of the requirements of HLS (Higher Level Stewardship), which gives subsidies to organic farmers based on measures they take to benefit the environment. Pertwood Farm’s rotation of crops with livestock is also part of HLS, and they have to plant certain crops in certain places. They even have to plant certain things in the beetle banks. All of this might sound controlling but it’s carried out with the aim of maintaining the environment, diversity of life and sustainability.
In organic farming you’re not allowed to use conventional synthetic pesticides or chemicals (not even to clean the storage areas, which are usually fumigated but Pertwood vacuums them instead) and because of this organic farmers save a huge amount of money.
“Here at Pertwood we’ve broken the mould that it can’t be profitable to be an organic farmer – it can be profitable because of the cost savings. When you look at the price of chemical fertilisers now, we don’t have any of that. For the average farmer that’s his biggest cost. He’s being taken for a ride – chemical companies and all sorts of people state things like ‘you must spray that’, and everyone trusts them. But as I’ve learnt with my farms, most of what you’re told is wrong.”
The final part of my tour takes us to the edge of an adjacent farm which has been recently acquired by Lower Pertwood Farm. A field we pass is wheat and Mr Mole highlights how the stalks are grown very close together, saying that it had been sprayed with pesticides and given chemical fertilisers in order to achieve uniformity and the appearance of good health. Manor Farm has always been conventional, and when Mr Mole first bought it many of the crops were diseased. Those who worked on it were spraying them and spraying them, but he told them to stop. Why? Because all 250 acres of the farm are being converted from conventional to organic.
“It’s very good for me to see farmers in desperation just throw chemicals at something to try and make crops grow, to try and protect them from pests and diseases, and then to be able to say to them: ‘Did you know that we’re converting a conventional farm to organic?’ Everyone I’ve told looks at me in horror.”
It’s against the trend to convert from conventional to organic, but Pertwood Farm proves that it’s not only profitable to farm organically, but it also benefits the soil and a myriad of life forms, all of which are a vital part of the food chain. “I’ve got infinite, infinite faith in nature,” Mr Mole says seriously. There may be lots of little details to organic farming, but the ambience of natural energy and array of wildlife at Pertwood is amazing, and this positivity surely must filter down into the food we put in our mouths and so affect us and our bodies in beneficial ways.
At a basic level our cells are made up of various vitamins and minerals, and soil requires approximately 52 minerals, but artificial fertilisers contain only nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Without the other 49 minerals (such as manganese and zinc) the soil becomes deficient, which makes the plants deficient and weakened. So, in conjunction with all the pesticides and herbicides sprayed onto conventional crops, a lot of the food we eat cannot help but be deficient and toxic. But, with organic, this can be rectified, as Pertwood reveals.
“I’ve asked for a full-scale test to be done on Pertwood this year,” Mr Mole tells me. “From a few quick tests, the indications are that the fertility has improved hugely while we’ve been here. We’ve really corrected the levels – it was deficient in potassium, in magnesium and all these things. But not anymore. It’s pretty magnificent.”