Wessex Water will pay farmers to go organic

Wessex Water is offering to pay farmers in key supply areas to convert to organic farming, in order to stop further contamination of groundwater with fertilisers and pesticides.

Andrea Husband, compliance scientist at Wessex Water, said: “We will be targeting farmers in eight key areas in Salisbury and Dorset, following assessment under a nutrient management plan carried out by the Soil Association. They will be offered up to £40/ha/yr to begin conversion to organic farming. The system will be banded, so farmers on the edge of the catchment area will be offered slightly less.”

Wessex hopes the scheme will prove attractive enough for farmers to begin the process of converting by this autumn. The farmers will not have to comply with every principle of organic farming during the first two years of the scheme.

Miss Husband explained: “Although we would obviously like the farmers in question to convert completely to organic farming, we may ask them to begin by abiding with the nutrient management plan.” The £40/ha, once approved, will be guaranteed for two years, after which a request for complete conversion may be made.

Organic farming, as certified by the Soil Association, involves many more requirements than just nutrient control. Pesticides are banned, animal welfare is strictly enforced and genetically modified organisms must not exist within close range of the farm.

Julia Feron of the Soil Association, who will be responsible for the certification of farmers who agree to participate in the scheme, said: “The organic farming system is quite complex, so what we are likely to see on the big farms is a gradual conversion process.”

Wessex is keen to encourage organic practices, in an attempt to reduce water treatment costs. According to research by Jules Pretty, director of the Centre for Environment and Society at Essex University, 89 per cent of pesticides in England are derived from agricultural activity, and pesticide use could be costing the English water industry up to £150M/yr to treat.

Previous attempts by Wessex to obtain funds for groundwater protection from Entrust (under the landfill tax credit scheme) failed last year, so Wessex asked the Soil Association to develop the organic farming scheme as an alternative.

If nitrate levels cannot be controlled, Wessex may be forced to introduce more expensive water treatment equipment, eventually resulting in increased costs to the consumer.

According to Miss Husband: “If groundwater nitrate levels in the eight borehole source areas continue to increase at the present rate, the average level could exceed the Drinking Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations (1989) in the next 5-10 years.” The existing limit for nitrate is 50 mg/l of nitrate as NO3, equivalent to 11.3 mg/l of nitrate as N.

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