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Early harvest could mean farmers miss lucrative oat contracts

Robert Law

An early harvest and high prices for other crops could lead farmers to overlook potentially lucrative oat contracts for next year. This is the warning from prominent arable farmer Robert Law, who says oats, as a traditionally late-sown crop, are in danger of being passed by, even though there are contracts on offer that match or even surpass those for some wheats.  

Conservation oats is just one example, says Robert, who farms in Hertfordshire. Consumers are becoming more aware of the need for arable systems that actively promote wildlife, and the Conservation Grade scheme has recruited some big food companies recently that will be able to market brands under the Nature Friendly Farming banner.

Farmers could be looking at the long term opportunities of getting involved in initiatives such as this.

Robert was one of the first farmers to grow crops under the Conservation Grade protocol. He says hes aware of a number of farmers who are taking advantage of the early harvest this year to switch to oilseed rape from oats as a break crop for wheat.

Everyone assumes rape is more profitable, but thats not always the case, points out Robert.   There are some good opportunities around for oats. Conservation Grade pays a premium for oats of 11 over wheat futures in return for farmers putting 10 per cent of their farm usually the least productive areas into specific wildlife habitats.

Whats more, if youre already investing in wildlife habitats for schemes such as ELS and HLS, you could find that you are already eligible. Aside from it being a good way of securing a market with a premium, its rewarding to grow habitats that work and tick other environmental boxes at the same time and it could open the door to also grow crops such as wheat for the scheme.

The Conservation Grade protocol was first developed in 1985 and has since evolved into an internationally recognised independent sustainable farming standard, operating in five countries on over 60,000 acres and certifying produce ranging from milling wheat to lettuce.

To find out more about Conservation oat contracts on offer for next season, speak to Shelley Abbott on 01767 319465 or go to


Conservation Grade Seven Key Requirements


In return for a contracted premium price for their grain, the Conservation Grade protocol places seven key requirements on its farmers:


1.     Comply with Conservation Grade production standards


2.     Commit 10% of the farmed area to a specific range of managed wildlife habitats


3.     Hold full membership of an approved Assured Food Standards farm assurance scheme.


4.     Participate in induction and annual Conservation Grade training programmes.


5.     Create a whole farm environment plan.


6.     Pass an annual independent CMi audit and five yearly habitat assessment


7.     Be members of the Guild of Conservation Grade Producers




Conservation Grade Habitats


Conservation Grade farmers are required to use a minimum of 10% of their farmed land for the creation and management of a specific range of habitats for wildlife. The habitats must be created and managed in the ratios prescribed to create the optimum conditions to promote biodiversity on the farm. Conservation Grade habitats are designed to be congruent with the UK Governments agri-environmental stewardship (ES) schemes such as Entry Level (ELS) and Higher Level (HLS), as well as other EU environmental stewardship programmes.




Farmer Benefits


All Conservation Grade farmers have access to a secure supply contract for their produce for which licensees guarantee a premium over the market price in return for implementing the CG standards on their farmed land. Because of this commercial continuity, Conservation Grade creates a model for both profitable farming and practical wildlife conservation.




Conservation Grade Research


As part of this ongoing commitment, Conservation Grade has established its own research programme. As of June 2011, this includes the following initiatives:  


  • A four year research project with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, (commenced in 2009) to look at: (i) improved habitat creation associated with hedgerows and linear features; and (ii) habitat rotation options. This work is taking place on four, geographically dispersed farms in Norfolk, Leicester, Bedford and Dorset.
  • A three year joint PhD research project with Reading University and BBSRC (to commence in 2011), comparing biodiversity benefits on CG farms with controls.
  • A suite of 12-15 one year MRes and MSc research projects (between 2011 and 2014) on CG-specific ecological and socioeconomic topics.
  • A 3 year study with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has recently (2009) been completed; looking at the environmental impact and cost of a variety of seed mixes, as well as their optimum location on the farm.






Conservation Grade is a truly unique system of sustainable farming, founded on science and commercial viability. It is congruent with, but greatly out performs government agri-environment schemes, and as such is singularly recognised by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study. TEEB is the leading international policy initiative charged by G8, the EU, and Defra with identifying and promulgating sustainable production systems capable of making a meaningful contribution to the conservation of global biodiversity by the private sector.  


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