Healthy yields put farmers in a good mood

‘Whinging farmer’ is a phase I often hear in my job, but the present mood is good. This is down to the fact that the sun has been shining and it feels as if we’ve enjoyed a proper British summer – a stark contrast to the misery of 2012. Everything changes when a farmer can get on with things instead of peering out of his windows and watching a year’s work get washed away or deteriorate in front of his eyes.

Last year, we were snatching our crops when we could, between bursts of torrential rain onto already sodden ground. We harvested blackened crops that had had all the goodness washed out and yields were depressingly low. By contrast, yields in 2013 are better than we could have hoped for, and the quality is generally good.

Even the farmers who, last autumn, could not access their fields to plant crops- it is estimated that 30% of autumn plantings didn’t go ahead because of the wet weather-got on with the job in the spring with better-than-expected results. Nothing’s ever that simple in farming, however: global markets are anticipating bigger harvests across the world and therefore grain prices (for wheat, barley and maize) are now more than £50 a ton lower than last year. Once the glow of an easy harvest has dimmed, arable farmers will see profits tumble. ‘Up horn, down corn’ is an old farming maxim that remains true today.

My vice-president farms beef cattle and sheep in the West Midlands and, last winter, failed to harvest any of his winter feed. This spring, he tweeted a soul-destroying picture of mowing the pitiful remains of his maize silage. Sunshine and cheaper animal feed have undoubtedly made him happier, as has the price of beef being at a record high.

The dust has settled on the horsemeat scandal. I’m not sure we will ever learn the true extent of the fraud, as the beef industry is so valuable to key exporting countries. Processors and retailers are now bidding up the price of beef in an already tight world market so that they can brag about British sourcing.

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There is also a spat between Tesco and Sainsbury’s over the importance of provenance; Sainsbury’s argues that to compare the price of a ham roll made with British pork to one made from imported pork is misleading. The Advertising Standards Authority disagrees and Sainsbury’s is appealing the judgement. For British farmers who are competing with imported products that have differing production standards, and hence a lower cost of production, this is important stuff.

The real and, we hope, lasting lesson from ‘Horsegate’ is that consumers were shocked to learn that their food had crossed up to seven international borders and changed hands many times between faceless individuals. The NFU has grabbed the opportunity to champion short, local supply chains-and when we say short, we mean, quite simply, farmer, processor, shop. COUNTRY LIFE readers can support our Back British Farming campaign by shopping locally and asking supermarkets to show clearly where their food is produced.

The good news doesn’t stop there. At a recent meeting with Tesco, the supermarket was really clear about the need to forge close and sustainable links with British farmers. This isn’t just because consumers say they want to buy British where they can, but, critically, global market dynamics are telling Tesco that it can’t take sourcing supplies from overseas for granted. Growing world populations and the rapid increase in demand for food as Chinese shoppers adopt more western-style diets look set to keep pressures on world food markets.

We have seen better prices across the board for most meats, which comes on the back of more retailers committing to British products. Lamb, however, is the exception. Prices have been up and down like a yo-yo after a couple of years of higher figures. This is due to there being more New Zealand lamb on supermarket shelves at the height of the British season. It’s most annoying for our sheep farmers, as the imported meat is not clearly marked and customers can’t easily select our great seasonal product.

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Politics is never far from the farm gate and the sight of the Prime Minister at the North Devon Show highlighted both his knowledge of farming and the turbulent political climate around the subject. A reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was concluded in Luxembourg in June and needs national implementation; it’s a minefield of conflicting interests that now need to be reconciled. We know that money is in short supply, and I’ve said many times that farmers understand that they will see budgets cut, but it must be done fairly across Europe and not disproportionately in the UK.

Politics is also centre stage as the badger cull approaches. I’ve written optimistically about cattle farming, but any farmer who’s been closed down due to having bovine TB in his cattle has a bleak future. In parts of the South-West, up to 25% of cattle farms are infected, which means cattle movements are halted and animals are being slaughtered. Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Defra, has shown real courage and leadership in developing a policy that allows for the disease to be tackled in cattle as well as removing the reservoir in wildlife. The badger cull has already brought many celebrity campaigners out of the woodwork, and they’re championing vaccination as an alternative.

This isn’t an option for cattle at present and will not be available for at least 10 years. A vaccine is available for badgers, but it won’t cure a sick animal so is of little use in areas where up to a third of badgers could be infected. The spread of the disease in cattle is doubling every 10 years; it costs taxpayers more than £90 million each year and farmers much, much more. David Cameron’s open support for the cull has been a real boost for cattle farmers.

As we enter the autumn of 2013, the picture is, as usual, mixed. I began by saying that farmers were in a good mood. By and large we are, but how long will it be before we start moaning that it’s too dry?

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