Farming issues in Essex
PUBLISHED: 12:34 21 October 2010 | UPDATED: 18:02 20 February 2013
St Osyth farmer Guy Smith is the National Farmer's Union's county delegate for Essex. Here he shares just some of his thoughts on a selection of the current issues facing the farmers of Essex
Nothing seems to drive people to panic more quickly than a story about rising food prices, and particularly increases in the cost of wheat. I was contacted recently by the team at dear old BBC Radio Essex who wanted a comment on, in the words of the researcher, the spiralling wheat price. The resulting conversation took me back to 2007 when I was among a sanguine bunch of Essex farmers who tried to avert panic on the streets of Basildon by taking to the countys airwaves to explain bread supplies were not, as was being reported elsewhere, about to dry up.
Three years on, the researcher on the phone had read somewhere that wheat prices were sky high which would cause bread prices to rocket. I patiently pointed out that her memory was possibly a little short-term in that while the wheat price was indeed appreciably higher than it was 12 months ago, it was actually lower than it had been 24 months previous.
Indeed taking an even longer-term perspective, some of us old curmudgeons could recall it first touched three figures in terms of pounds per tonne as long ago as 1980 when Kajagoogoo were top of the charts and Nottingham Forest had a world-beating football team. Today, in sober contrast, wheat is commanding around 145. That works out as a gain of 1.50 or 1.5% a year. That doesnt nearly match inflation over the same period and one suspects if the increment had been a steady 1.50 a year no one in the press would ever have reported it.
Many of us farmers might wish that tractors were only 50% more today than they were in 1980. I remember dad splashing out on a tractor in 1980 for the princely some of 25,000. Today the horse power equivalent would set you back around four times that amount. The problem seems to be that when the wheat price collapses, as it did in 2009, the media see nothing to report. There certainly was no mention of anticipated reductions in bread prices. But when wheat bounces back from that collapse you would think western civilisation stood on the brink of collapse.
As a result, some of the non-farming public must get the impression the price us old farmers get is permanently rising at an astronomic rate. But give Radio Essex its due, they gave me ten minutes of air time which hopefully put things in some perspective among their local listenership who then, hopefully, stopped hoarding bread as if it was the last time it would be found on the shelves of Tesco.
Even at 150 a tonne, wheat and the bread it goes to make remain highly affordable staples, thanks to modern agriculture. Today it takes the average worker less than five minutes to earn the money needed to buy a loaf of bread. For our parents 40 years ago, it took 25 minutes more than five-times as long.
Perversely, low cereal prices are probably a bigger threat to food supplies than high prices. When wheat falls below 100 a tonne, as it did in the autumn of 2009, the result is that there is very little incentive for farmers to bother to grow it. Couple that with an indifferent global harvest such as in 2010 and then, just maybe, you start to play a bit fast and loose with the future food supply. Some people call this the invisible hand of the free market. Others, such as the Russians, call it time to slap a ban on wheat exports. Politicans, it would seem, love the thought of free market economics until it fails to deliver food to their electorate.
One suspects that farmers have always moaned about the weather. When your livelihood depends on it then there is always going to be a lot of grumbles when it doesnt quite perform as you would wish. On top of this, most farmers like to think the weather in their particular patch is a little more testing than it is elsewhere. The fact is our climate is reasonably benign to agricultural production, but that doesnt mean it doesnt cause significant challenges.
The biggest weather headache for Essex farmers is probably drought. Essex is Britains driest county with some parts on the eastern fringe receiving less than 500mm of rain in an average year, which is less than Jerusalem and classifies these areas as semi-arid.
For farmers whose land is primarily water retentive Essex clay, their crops of wheat can still produce good crops even with this paucity of rain. In fact, the dryness can be a boon because dry harvests are not only easier to undertake, they also mean the quality of crops is good.
Whereas most wheat grown in the UK is of poor quality and usually fed to animals, Essex is known for its good quality wheat that goes to make bread and it is the drier climate that allows this. For farmers on more gravelly soils which are typically found in the north of the county, reservoirs are needed where winter rainfall is stored and then sprayed onto moisture-hungry crops such as potatoes or onions in the summer.
Climate change could have a huge impact on farming in Essex if it reduces rainfall. The spring of 2010 was unusually dry, which reduced yields even on the clay. If such droughts become more common place, farmers will have to respond by concentrating more on autumn-grown crops which are less susceptable to spring drought and by increasing reservoir size to store more winter rainfall.
Some are already doing this, while others think when it comes to changes in weather patterns, the jury is still out and it is too early to start making significant changes. One thing is for sure, if there was a weather forecaster who could accurately predict the weather over the next six weeks, let alone the next 60 years, they would be a welcome guest around any farmhouse breakfast table.
Harvest time each year also signals the start of the dodgems season for Essex farmers. Like many of my fellow farmers, the rather strung out nature of our fields means we are frequently squeezing the combine harvester along roads not designed for such hulks.
It is scarcely believable that in the 1930s my grandfather used to drive herds of bullocks along the B1027 from St Osyth to Clacton it is quite a thought as I escort our combine along the same bit of tarmac. A herd of 50 cows let loose on that road today would probably make the national news, not to mention causing a major police incident along with miles of traffic tail backs.
It seems a bit of an irony that while over the last couple of generations our quiet country lanes have been transformed into teeming carriageways, also in that time farmers have chosen to shepherd ever-larger contraptions along the nations highways at ever-more frequent intervals. Combines only get larger and farm businesses take on further spaced out land. But, on reflection, I suppose it is reassuring that, on this farm, we have done hundreds if not thousands of miles on public roads in wide-berthed vehicles, and yet, had so few incidents.
There were a few dents in an old Mondeo a couple of years ago when our power harrow met the driver side wing coming round a corner, but other than that the insurance company has seldom been bothered with claims. In fact, thinking about it, we seem to have far more accidents in our cars than we do in the vehicles that are nearly twice the width.
Despite the odd example of Mr Road-rage who seems to struggle to comprehend that we cant breathe in any more than we can suddenly widen the road, it has to be said that in my experience the average road user is remarkably understanding of the combine drivers bloated predicament.
After all, it is nearly always us that strays over the white line into the oncoming carriageway and it is usually us that requests others back up or wait in order to allow us through. When escorting the combine round the roads I am always thanking people for their patience or for forsaking their right of way and it is heartwarming that most people wave and smile back in a very understanding manner. Long may this highway code of good conduct prevail.
I heard a nasty rumour the other day that now the EU has put mycotoxin thresholds on the agenda of wheat growers it is to move on to establish allowable ergotamine levels. At the moment keeping ergotamine out of the human food chain is done at the mill intake where, if ergot grains are found in the drawn sample, then load is rejected. If there was a change to this whereby in some way environmental health officers were brought in to test flour or bread then that could really upset the apple cart.
As a grower who grows mainly milling wheat on heavy land where blackgrass control is always a challenge, ergot contamination is always a concern. Mercifully we seldom see it and weve never had a rejection, but a tightening of the way contamination is assessed could well be another reason to stick with feed wheat which already has an easier ride when it comes to things like protein, hagberg and bushelweight.
Ergot has always intrigued me, not least because in the 1930s a Swiss scientist called Dr Hoffman first synthesised LSD by copying the chemical make up of claviceps purpurea, otherwise known as ergot. Being a good ethical scientist, Hoffman chose himself as the first test case to sample his new compound and when, a few minutes after taking it, he noticed zebras were cycling around the ceilings of his lab, he realised he was onto something interesting.
I remember as a boy, father giving me the job of picking it out of the heaps of Maris Huntsman in the barn. I used to put it in the pockets of my shorts and carry it around with me oblivious as to the nature of what I had on my person. Had the teachers at Clacton Grammar known there was a pupil on the premises with enough hallucinogenic substance in his possession to give the whole first form a psychedelic break time then there could have been a bit of a kerfuffle in the staff room.
To find out more about the Essex Agricultural Society call 01245 424113 or visit www.essexag.co.uk
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