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All is not safely gathered in

25 September 2008

Spiralling costs and bad weather have made this year a tough harvest, says Anthony Russell

Out in the fields: Harold Smith watches his son Colin harvesting in Essex PA

Out in the fields: Harold Smith watches his son Colin harvesting in Essex ...

The ceaseless rain of August and September has meant that many farmers will not have finished harvest by the time parishes celebrate this harvest festival.

For many, this has been a disastrous harvest, with wet sprouting corn, fields waterlogged, enormous additional drying costs, and livestock drowned in rivers that have been turned to torrents. In some areas, the September rainfall record had been broken by the fifth day of the month. Farmers are wondering whether this second wet harvest in a row is a blip or a trend.

Farmers are also aware that there are fundamental climatic and struc­tural changes taking place in national and international food production. The area of cereals in the UK in­creased by 14 per cent this year, encouraged by last year’s high prices. A US commentator described events around the world last year as “the perfect storm” — crop failures in many places; low stocks; increasing human consumption; and new demands from the biofuel industry.

Paradoxically, this year, though quality is very variable, it is likely to be the largest UK cereal harvest ever, at 19 million tonnes. Milling wheat, which sold for about £200 per tonne last year, commands only £140 this year. Feed wheat has dropped from £166 in 2007 to £101 now; and oilseed rape from £280 to £225.

On the back of these high profits last year, farmers took the oppor­tunity to re-equip with new tractors and combines (costing up to £250,000, and £750 to fill the fuel tank). Some of the machinery could not be delivered until 2010, so great was the demand. This year, the dealers’ telephones have been ringing to cancel earlier orders.

It has not been any better for livestock farmers, particularly in hill and upland areas. If they have a first cut of silage, there is unlikely to be a second or third; fields are being damaged by the cattle, some of whom have had to be brought inside, with obvious feeding-cost implications.

There is likely to be a significant shortage of hay, straw, and other win­ter fodder. In extreme cases, farmers have lost animals — 300 sheep drowned on one farm alone.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of culling badgers, the fact remains that 28,000 TB-infected cattle were destroyed in 2007; and 48 farmers give up dairy farming each month.

The bad news for farmers in 2008 is not only the unremitting bad weather, but also what is called “mar­gin compression”. At a time when the value of their product is falling, the costs of production are rising.

Farming is an oil-based industry. Field cultivation, fertilisers, pesti­cides, fungicides, herbicides, and much else are derived directly from oil. Farmers calculate their fixed and variable costs, which are now so high that in many cases it is not worth putting seed into the ground. Fertiliser that cost £100 a tonne two years ago now costs anything up to £400 per tonne.

The problems are not only confined to 2008. Fields that should have been planted with next year’s harvest are either waterlogged or full of this year’s crop. The window for planting oilseed rape is fast closing. The waterlogged fields mean there has been a bumper crop of slugs. Some new-planted crops have been eaten clean, and require redrilling.

In the past ten years, farmers have watched the ever-advancing prospect of biofuels as their possible salvation. With strong government induce­ment, 30 per cent of the US maize crop now goes for bioethylene pro­duc­tion.

Yet there has been a discernible change in public attitudes. To grow a food crop to fill the fuel tanks of large cars in a world of increasing hunger, especially after food riots this year in Haiti, Mexico, and West Bengal, no longer seems morally and ethically acceptable. Archbishop Tutu and many others have spoken about this. The World Bank esti­mates that cereal production needs to increase by 50 per cent and meat production by 80 per cent before 2030 to meet world food demand.

This year, anti-biofuel protesters have mounted a large protest in Kent, outside the site of Greenergy, which supplies biodiesel, processed from imported palm oil, as well as locally grown oilseed rape, principally for Tesco. East Anglian producers and processing companies have been warned that they can expect similar actions.

Not all non-food uses of grain are so controversial. Last year, a sig­nificant amount of wheat was used in starch-extraction plants, particu­larly the main one in Manchester (which had been built originally to process imported US maize, which is now not available because of bio­ethylene production). Farmers drink­ing a pint of beer at an agricultural show will be aware that not only the beer, but also the plastic-type mug made from grain starch will have come from their farms.

During the year, food prices have risen, in part driven by the high cereal prices of last year. That should not apply this year, and the world as a whole has had good harvests, even if Britain has not. Overall, food and drink inflation has taken place at about 18 per cent, but much higher levels of about 40 per cent have been recorded in bread and meat.

Yet it is still too early to determine how many of these trends have long-term implications. Many farmers view the future with apprehension. The harvest this year has been a depressing time for many.

The average age of farmers is about 60, and it is expected that all EU farming subsidies will be terminated in 2012. Many farmers are beginning to think that that will be a good time to retire, and are not encouraging younger members of their families to take over. This is an immense challenge in a world of increasing hunger.

Dr Anthony Russell is Bishop of Ely. He was recently awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Agricultural Societies.

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