If the weather forecast for the next few days is accurate, by the time you read this we will have finished harvest.
With luck we will also have done it without starting the continuous flow drier. A week or two of under-floor ventilation to take out a few percent of moisture and cool the early combined grain should suffice. I’m well aware how fortunate that must seem to readers in the West and the North where the wet summer has been succeeded by a wetter harvest and there is much more still to bring into barns. But there, I’m afraid, my optimism ends.
For although I hoped, a couple of weeks ago, when I last wrote about combining the first of the wheat, that we would find higher yields and better quality as the harvest proceeded, it didn’t happen. Only a few of our bushel weights topped 70 as they came off the combine and most were in the 60s. The implication is that values will be docked because quality is lower than the standard 72 specification, making it an even more disappointing outcome to a year’s work.
To try to limit the downside, we’ve experimented with dressing out the worst of the thin stuff and managed to improve bushel weights by at least five points, so it was worthwhile. But it takes time and costs more to salvage an already lost cause. At least the pheasants will enjoy the dross. With average yields as low here as they’ve been almost everywhere else – in other words, under 3t/acre (7.25t/ha) – and the need to sell every grain possible, they might not have had much to pick at otherwise.
Last year, despite the drought, some cereal growers in the Midlands, the West and some coastal districts harvested record yields and quality. But for some of us here in the East this is the second successive disaster and it hurts, even though it’s been a relatively easy harvest to gather. I’ve heard reliable stories of yields much lower than ours, here in central Norfolk, dragged down by bushel weights as low as 50. I’ve also heard of farmers who’ve sold forward hundreds of tonnes more than they’ve harvested at the high prices available on the market in recent weeks and who now face having to pay huge margin calls because they can’t deliver.
Our industry is going to need some very understanding bank managers over the next twelve months and that can’t be assumed in the middle of the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, especially for tenants. We must also hope for a better year in 2013. High market prices based on world shortages will help, of course, and encourage growers to use the most productive methods they know as they start another crop year. But we still need favourable weather and the last couple of seasons have dented confidence.
Nevertheless, like most of our neighbours, we’ve been busy drilling oilseed rape, sometimes only hours after the previous crop has been cleared from the land and in spite of the very real threat of serious slug damage. We farmers have the reputation of being whingers and pessimists. But to show such faith in the weather and the markets a year or more into the future so soon after, and in some cases during, an appalling harvest like this might suggest we are incurably optimistic. We must hope and pray that on this occasion that optimism turns out to be justified.