FOR TOO long, organic arable farmers have survived on the 'scraps' from the conventional wheat breeding system, with no varieties bred and trialled specifically to suit organic production.

This has left them reliant on varieties bred for conventional, high-input systems, or on imported organic varieties from other countries, which can succumb to disease in the UK climate.

To remedy this, a team of farmers and researchers has been collaborating, first through an Innovative Farmers field lab, and then the LiveWheat programme, to trial organic wheat varieties and do what big, conventional breeders have not – discover which varieties perform best without chemical inputs.

“There is a huge chasm between what organic farmers need, and the system they have,” said Bill Angus, founder of Angus Wheat Consultants, which runs the largest privately owned, independent wheat breeding programme in the UK. “At the moment they get the scraps from the conventional breeding world. The fundamental problem is that the organic market is very small and big companies are not interested in small.”

As such it was 'almost impossible' to get hold of new organic wheat varieties – which is why his company is now supplying the on-farm trials specifically targetting wheat for organic production.

Organic Research Centre senior crop researcher Dominic Amos added; “Almost all wheat breeding in the UK is done under high input scenarios, then tested under high input conditions. Since organic growers are therefore reliant on conventionally bred varieties, companies should at least test these under organic conditions, ideally across farms to account for variability in environments and management.”

But because companies don’t do this and the system for testing new varieties is unlikely to change any time soon, Mr Amos believes that on-farm, farmer-led trials could be the solution: “We need to work with the system we’ve got so that we can help organic farmers now,” he said.

Their new research began within the Innovative Farmers programme where, with the support of AHDB, ORC has worked with arable farmers to grow a large number of wheat varieties under organic conditions to assess traits and identify novel varieties for testing at a larger scale.

Since then, Defra funding allowed them to build LiveWheat, a network of 15 arable farms trialling varieties under real world, organic conditions. Longer term, Mr Amos hopes these farmer groups can develop into a participatory plant breeding network.

“We’re finding out from organic farmers what they want in terms of traits beyond yield,” he said. “These might include spring vigour to help out-compete and even suppress weeds, which is so important in organic systems, as well as a consistent yield, height, grain quality and disease resistance.”

Oxfordshire contract arable farmer and no-till specialist, James Alexander, is taking part in LiveWheat and has been trialling five varieties on organic land, having first joined the project through the Innovative Farmers’ field lab.

“If you’re a conventional farmer, you can gather as much information as you want as there’s loads available,” said Mr Alexander. “But if you’re organic there is no trial information. You can look at the recommended list for untreated seeds, but they are still treated with herbicides and mineral nitrogen.

"So letting farmers trial varieties on a bigger scale allows us to capture real world data, especially because you’re not all growing it in perfect Lincolnshire soil. By pooling our findings we’re also learning quicker which varieties might be suitable.”

To view the full field lab report with detailed analysis and performance graphs from the four year research project, contact Dan Iles: