RB Organic - vegetable farm
RB Organic farms on the 1800-hectare Houghton Hall Estate in Norfolk. There are approximately 200 hectares under organic vegetables managed by Joe Rolfe, producing more than 6,000 tonnes of carrots a year, as well as beetroot, potatoes, and onions for retail. About 90% of organic carrots sold via retail are sold by RB Organics.
Joe Rolfe had previously worked in conventional farming before taking on his current role at RB Organic: “At the time I was probably a little bit skeptical about organic production and farming methods, but actually, over the last 10 years of farming organically I have bought into the ethos of organic farming principles.” The farm has seen year-on-year growth and Joe admits to being genuinely surprised at what they have been able to achieve without using chemicals. He explains that they are farming with long rotations and making use of the latest science and technology, such as GPS, camera-guided hoes, robotics and soil analysis. “I believe that in organics we’re at the forefront of innovative farming. We’re engaging with expert agronomists, entomologists and ag – tech specialists to constantly learn and evolve our approach to improve our business.”
“At the time I was probably a little bit skeptical about organic production and farming methods, but actually, over the last 10 years of farming organically I have bought into the ethos of organic farming principles.”Joe Rolfe, RB Organics
Understanding soils and crops
RB Organics has invested in its soil. Every year, soil samples are taken in all the fields, so Joe has a complete picture of what is happening across the farm. Over the last 15 years, the soil organic matter has risen from 0.5% to more than 1.5%, which is a huge achievement for light, sandy soils. Understanding crop requirements is crucial too. Knowing that carrots don’t need a lot of nitrogen is a good example explains Joe: “There is no need to apply nitrogen as it simply creates a microclimate that encourages disease.”
The boost in soil organic matter has been due in part to the inclusion of livestock in the rotations. “I can’t emphasize enough the benefit of livestock in the rotation. It enables us to make money out of grass and clover and helps us build soil organic matter and suppress weeds,” says Joe. “By improving our soil health we build resilience into our system which is increasingly important with the rise in extreme weather events”.
As an organic grower, Joe can’t resort to chemicals to control pests, so he must farm in balance with nature and ensure there are plenty of natural predators. As well as having wildlife areas, flower margins and mixed flower corridors to boost biodiversity, Joe is working with a company that breeds beneficial insects. They are releasing ladybirds, parasitic wasps, lacewing etc. to help control pests and using nematodes to control carrot fly. So far, it’s working well. Aphids numbers, in particular, have fallen so there is less spread of viruses.
Keeping weeds under control is key to success and one of the most effective method is hand weeding along with mechanical weeding. The careful management of weed control throughout the rotation is key. Due to the long rotations, they only grow carrots one year in seven, so it’s important not to allow a weed burden to build up in the soil. When sowing spring barley and oats, they miss out every other row, so they can use an interrow hoe and take it right up to the plants, which helps to keep the field clean. They don’t leave the soil bare and sow cover crops such as radish and mustards to suppress weeds and help to build soil organic matter. They also graze sheep on the cover crops to control weeds.
When you are growing organic vegetables, you are dealing with a premium product. “If you can make the rotation work, there is a real business case for organics,” says Joe.
“If you can make the rotation work, there is a real business case for organics”Joe Rolfe, RB Organics
Working with Soil Association Certification
Joe certified the farm with Soil Association Certification in 2012 and has been impressed by the level of customer service, supply chain and marketing support that he’s received, and the fact that the farming experts he works with really understand his business. Of Soil Association’s high organic standards, Joe says "Soil Association Certification are constantly surprising me. Initially I had concerns that Soil Association standards would be too stringent with little room for negotiation when it comes to approving the use of inputs. However, I’ve been encouraged by the support that I’ve received from the technical and certification teams – certifying with them has enabled me to meet the high organic farming standards whilst farming in a practical and realistic way."
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Funding for Organic Conversion
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