Am I alone in feeling more and more of the challenges farmers face moving outside our control? I used to believe that by judicious management I could control most input costs. But the crazy volatility of energy prices, in particular in recent years, which in turn has influence almost everything else, has turned that into a lottery. Similarly, I used to think I could read commodity markets fairly accurately and know when to sell grain close to the top of the market. That possibility too has disappeared, as world production and demand have exhibited all the stability of an Essex girl on a Saturday night.
All of which prompts me to seek predictability elsewhere – like the Budget, for instance. In a way, it was predictable, given the state of the nation’s economy. In other words, apart from a few minor concessions, it was essentially a non-event.
If I were to be charitable, I would say the announcement of a £2,000 cut in national insurance costs for small businesses is welcome, but as it’s delayed until April 2014, it won’t provide the immediate boost needed. We must also be grateful for the cancellation of the increase in fuel duty planned for September. But given the extortionate price of fuel today, most of which is tax, the retention of the increase could have been the final straw for some.
Nor am I excited by the abolition of the beer tax escalator that will cut 1p off the price of a pint. I calculate that will save me personally in the region of 1p a week from a consumption viewpoint and doubt if it will have a measurable effect on the value of any malting barley I grow. That, too, is subject to another element over which I have no control – the weather that continues to delay spring planting and potentially reduce production.
But there was one positive, if overdue, aspect of the Budget involving agriculture that has been virtually ignored by the popular press. It was the announcement that over the next 10 years more than £1.6 billion is to be committed to the national Industrial Strategy, some £500 million of which might be allocated to agricultural science. Indeed there is talk of a new agri centre at Wisbech in the the Fens that would work closely with existing centres at Norwich (the John Innes Centre, the leading laboratory in Europe researching genetic modification of farm crops) and Cambridge.
The initiative is backed by science minister David Willets and supported by Steve Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire, together with George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk, who is the government’s adviser on life sciences. It has the backing of the Cambridgeshire, Fenland District and probably Norfolk County Councils, who may help fund the project based on the employment it would create in the region.
More importantly in a wider context, the combination of these East Anglian research centres would work together on the challenges of increasing food production sustainably here and around the world as population and demand continue to grow. The plans include setting up innovation centres and demonstration farms to provide training and facilities where new scientific developments would be tested and demonstrated to ordinary farmers.
In some ways it sounds like a modern version of principles that existed 50 years ago, and what some of us have been calling for for several years. We must hope the 10-year lead time doesn’t mean it will happen too late to achieve what’s required in time.
David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna. His son Rob is farm manager.Read more from all our Opinion writers