A FARMER is shifting 240 hectares of his land outside Harpenden to organic production, the first major conversion in the St Albans area.

Ian Piggott, 37, is converting half of both Annabel's Farm, near Kinsbourne Green, and Cotton Spring Farm, near Markyate, over the next two years.

His long-term plan is to make both completely organic, as well as his third farm, Thrale's End immediately north of Harpenden.

He said: "It is a simple matter of pounds, shilling and pence.

"My family has farmed round here since the 13th century.

"But conventional farming has been losing money for years now.

"If we want to stay in farming, we have to do something different.

"We can't carry on as we are - it is uneconomic."

Although he anticipates his organic fields will produce less than half the crop yields, this will be balanced by the increased price.

Organic wheat, for example, currently fetches £165/tonne, more than double the price of £78 for conventional wheat.

Mr Piggott is not worried that the demand for organic products is just a fad and is sure it will increase, widening the price differential.

Animals reared to produce organic meat can now be fed with only 50 per cent organic products, but he knows by 2008 no conventional feed at all will be allowed under the certification rules.

Another factor he will have to cope with is that much of the land will be totally unproductive - under the complex cropping plans he has drawn up, fields will be planted with "fertility build", principally clover, one or two years out of five.

But convincing him that the move makes financial sense is his certainty that traditional production-based agricultural subsidies, whether from the European Union or the Government, will soon be scrapped.

He said: "Subsidy is the biggest driver.

"Agricultural subsidies are going to dry up.

"It is very difficult for Brussels to support production subsidies politically.

"Take that support away from conventional agriculture and the figures make pretty rough reading."

The shift to subsidies which support various forms of environmental management has already started - Mr Piggott will receive payments to bridge the two-year gap while his fields are planted with clover - and is likely to accelerate.

The clover will be cut three times a year, and simply left to lie on the fields as a mulch, the soil absorbing nitrogen and other natural substances which will, hopefully, act as a natural replacement for chemical fertilisers.

After a wheat year a field will be planted with a "break crop" such as beans, not merely a commercial product for animal feed, but also an effective way of preventing future disease.

Mr Piggott said: "It is the way farming was 50 years ago."

Without chemical fertilisers, there will inevitably be many more weeds - indeed that is much of the point of organic farming, as weeds are good for birds and invertebrates.

He said: "I am taking a chance - I might end up with a field full of weeds."

Once harvested, the crops will need extra processing to reduce the weeds, but he already has the necessary equipment.

Mr Piggott, who unlike most organic farmers has no cows or other livestock, faces the additional challenge of maintaining fertility without any manure and plans to use compost from organic waste recycling plants.

His conversion is being certified by Organic Farmers and Growers, one of several bodies authorised by the Government to ensure producers stick to the rules.

Mr Piggott said the rules are being stringently enforced.

He said: "If somebody next door saw me spraying, they would get straight on the phone to the authorities, quite rightly.""

Although he insists his motives are pound notes rather than principles, Mr Piggott is a long-standing practitioner of wildlife-friendly farming, as proved by the map of skylark territories, produced by an RSPB survey, on his office wall.

He is also a passionate advocate for farming in general, welcoming visitors and helping organise a national open-farm event earlier this year.

Mr Piggott, who is helped by his father John, who has farmed the area since the 1950s, hopes the great challenge he is embarking on will secure the future of the land for his two children, one-year-old Gracie, and 12-week-old Henry.

He said: "I am looking forward to the challenge.

"I hope we make a success of it so we can carry on farming here for another 100 years."