Examples of research projects

1. Cropping systems

Conversion to Organic Field Vegetable Production

In the mid 1990s MAFF/DEFRA funded a series of research projects exploring the issues associated with converting conventional farms to organic production. One of these concerned field vegetable production in particular.

The work took place over a period of nearly 10 years. It was led by HDRA, in collaboration with Horticulture Research International (now known as the Warwick University Crop Centre) and The Organic Research Centre, Elm Farm.

Two sites were chosen: a main one at an experimental station near Wellesbourne in Warks (known as Hunts Mill field). The second was at HRI Kirton in Lincs. Wellesbourne had sandy loam, well suited to root crops: Kirton enjoyed a more fertile soil ideal for brassicas. There were also nine commercial ‘reference’ farms located across the country (from Cornwall to Lancashire) that varied in soil type, climate and scale of production.

Assessments included crop yields, soil fertility, weeds, pests, diseases, and economics of individual crops and whole farms. Monitoring was initially for the two year ‘conversion period’, and then continued into the first phase of true organic cropping.

In addition to the formal final reports for Defra and appendices, a short case study for each of the reference sites was produced ( Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Devon, Lancashire, Lincolnshire - Epworth, Lincs - Kirton, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire - Frankton, Warks - Wellesbourne). These showed that although there were technical problems to be overcome (e.g. weed control and soil fertility) the major barriers to conversion were more often concerned with marketing of the vegetables.

Rotations and cropping systems

Following the initial ‘conversion project’, monitoring was continued at HRI Wellesbourne and additional farm sites. See these two DEFRA reports. This work focussed on soil fertility issues - in particular, investigating the period of time in a stockless vegetable rotation that should be dedicated to fertility building.

At Hunts Mill there were three fertility building strategies (a two year grass clover ley, a one year clover ley and the use of short term green manures only) within a field vegetable/ arable cropping sequence. Detailed data was collected from 36 individually managed strips.

Another important project also used the Hunts Mill site. Known as the EU-Rotate_N project, it involved replicated trials which were set up within the most, and least, intensive crop sequences. This was done in order to gather information that could be used to validate a computer model, developed to simulate nitrogen availability and its effect on crop performance.

Other research projects led by HDRA in in cropping systems, include:

Leafy Vegetables germplasm – stimulating use (EU funded). A project to evaluate the potential of various varieties of important European leafy vegetables.

Dissemination information on green manure management to growers (HDC funded). Production of factsheets on green manures and launching these at two on farm events.

Biofumigant crops as replacements for methyl bromide soil sterilants and potential to increase organic area in strawberry production (Defra funded LINK project). Evaluating the use of mustard and other crops as biofumigants.

Disease management in organic brassica seed and transplants (HDC funded). An evaluation of various seed and compost treatments to minimise disease in brassica seedlings.

The control of perennial weeds in organic and low input stockless and pasture systems (Defra funded). Investigating the potential of non-chemical techniques.

BioGreenHouse - Towards a sustainable and productive EU organic greenhouse horticulture (EU funded COST action). A 4-year project to allow partners in EU and neighbouring countries to discuss the issues specifically surrounding organic protected cropping.

Use of digestate on brownfield sites to produce energy crops (WRAP funded) Field trials on two quarry brownfield sites in England.

Novel uses for compost – a literature review of international experience (WRAP funded).

2. Environmental economics and social science

A new tool has been developed which calculates the true cost of food, and the benefits of organic growing. Examining the hidden environmental and social costs, which are not reflected in the price of so-called ‘cheaper‘ conventional food, this handy calculator puts a monetary value on such things as soil degradation, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change.

The published true cost values are based on calculation models provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Obviously far from complete, certainly way too conservative, first comparisons confirm: Organic is not too expensive; conventional is too cheap.

Other past research, by Garden Organic scientists, on the economics and social science of food production include:

An integrated analysis of scale effects in alternative agricultural systems (RELU funded). Investigating how the ecological, hydrological, socio-economic and cultural impacts of organic farming vary due to neighbourhood effects at a variety of scales.

Economics of organic farming (Defra funded). A project to examine the profitability of organic farms in the UK.

Developing methodologies for assessing environmental, economic and social issues of farming systems (Defra funded). Examining appropriate ways of evaluating the impacts of various farming systems in the UK.

Modelling the spatial and temporal management of land use to optimise biodiversity (Defra funded). A modelling approach is being taken to examine the reasons for the decisions for different lands uses and the economic implications on them.

Study tour into successful farm diversification (Lantra funded) Example of Germany with bio-dynamic plant breeding, anaerobic digestion, organic hotels

Economics of UK/EU protected organic horticulture (Garden Organic funded). Developing planning tools to help emerging of this new sector of organic horticulture

Agronomic and economic crop planning tool for school gardens (Garden Organic funded)

Review of Climate Friendly Food calculator (privately funded)

Short food supply chains and local food systems in the European Union – a state of play of their socio-economic characteristics (EU funded). A joint project with Coventry University.

FOODMETRES - Food Planning and Innovation for Sustainable Metropolitan Regions Case studies in 6 metro regions including London, Nairobi, Rotterdam, Berlin, Milan and Ljubljana (EU Framework 7 funded 3-year project started Oct 2012)

Growing Health – community food growing for health and wellbeing (Tudor Trust). A collaborative project with Sustain working with health authority case studies around the country to explore how community growing can be used to deliver health outcomes.

Mainstreaming agroecology: implications for global food and farming systems (Fund for the Environment & Urban Life (The Oram Foundation, Inc.) and the Grand Challenges Fund at Coventry University). A discussion paper.

3. Gardening research

Review of Benefits of Gardening (Garden Organic funded)

Product and technique testing (Industry funded)

4. Members’ experiments

Each year we organise several experiments that our members can participate in and publish the findings in our member magazine - The Organic Way. Common themes of experiments include novel crops, comparisons of varieties, gardening techniques and wildlife surveys. Most of this work is supported by our members but some experiments are run in collaboration with universities or commercial companies.

More details are available on the list of members' experiments since 2005.

Almost all our projects are collaborative and we work with many universities, research institutes, charities and private companies both in the UK and abroad. We have particularly close links with:

  • The Centre for Agroecology , Water and Resilience, Coventry University
  • Plant Health Solutions Ltd
  • Cambridge Eco Ltd
  • Warwick Crop Centre
  • The Organic Research Centre
  • The Soil Association
  • The Organic Growers Alliance