ONE YEAR ago, Melvyn Askew of the Central Science Laboratory promised UK producers “real profits” from non-food crops, and urged growers to act quickly to prevent overseas farmers stepping into the gap.

So just how realistic is it to do that?

Simon Meakin, of Springdale Crop Synergies, says most of the oilseeds he handles find a ready market in the UK.

“The SFP has opened up new opportunities to grow any crop, anywhere and there are other advantages.”

Many are spring-sown, and oilseed rape for biodiesel and crambe can be grown on industrial cropping set-aside, he says.

“They are also low N input crops, so are well suited for growing in an NVZ.”

“We believe rising energy costs gives new opportunities for UK farmers to grow for expanding markets,” says Grainfarmers” Andrew Barnard.

“The supply of oil is finite. Market values will fluctuate, but the long-term trend will remain firm.”

While cautious about the UK government’s ambivalent approach to biofuels in particular, Richard Whitlock at Banks Cargill welcomes new opportunities, especially for fuel energy. “It’s most definitely worthwhile, if you don’t mind a bit of bureaucracy – a whole new market.” Wessex Grain’s Malcolm Shepherd expects government policy to change. “Combined with the Kyoto implementation and the climate change revolution, I think they may have decided to do something more positive by April next year.”

Guy Tasker, of Saxon Agriculture, sees non-food production benefiting from EU policy. “In the absence of a processing industry here, it allows us to tap into the biodiesel industry, favoured by a benign German tax system.

“Non-food production is central to the future of UK agriculture under the SFP. Food production is no longer regarded as critical.”

“We haven’t even started to tap the potential,” says Centaur Grain’s John Thorpe, who is particularly enthusiastic about the future for rapeseed. “There’s so much you can do with the different types.”

Linseed is another crop with set-aside potential, according to Robin Appel’s industrial crop specialist Christopher Spedding.

“What’s particularly exciting is that while the soya price has crashed, dragging down oilseed rape prices with it, linseed is holding its value.”

Bio-ethanol is less attractive, according to Stuart Attridge of Harlow Agricultural Merchants. There is no UK processing plant and he does not consider cereals production viable at delivered prices currently quoted for processing in Spain.

Ian Munnery at United Oilseeds Marketing warns growers that growing non-food crops should not come from a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“Think of wider issues on your farm,” he urges. “Does non-food cropping pose contamination risks for future food crops, especially when quality assurance issues are important?”

Nigel Bazeley of Premium Crops also advises caution. “It pays to stick with familiar plant species, such as oilseed rape and linseed.”

One of the most established and stable alternative markets is for high erucic acid rape, according to David Christian, of John K King & Sons.

Good agricultural practice and sound rotations should avoid any crop integrity problems, he believes.

Mr Munnery also questions yield predictions for less familiar species. “Deliverable yields have so far proved disappointing with some crops.”

UK rapeseed-for-energy growers should keep a weather eye on uptake of the maximum 1.5m ha of Energy Aid Initiative in the EU as a whole, he adds.