It was a few years ago one September. We had just finished a catchy harvest, like we’ve had this year, and I took advantage of the break before autumn drilling to catch up with some business in London.
I had just settled into my seat on the train, preparing to read thelocal paper, when a voice said “May I join you?”
I looked up to find a man I had met socially a few times in Norwich settling into the seat opposite. “Of course,” I replied, vaguely remembering that he had a reputation as a clever lawyer. He clearly remembered I was a farmer because, with a familiarity I didn’t think we shared, he quipped: “Off to town to spend some of your subsidies?”
I gritted my teeth and forced a smile. I was clearly stuck with this man all the way to London so I supposed I had better stay polite. I decided to explain a few things to him. The weather-affected grain harvest we had just brought in had not been a good one. And the prices being offered were (like this year) in most cases below the cost of production.
“Subsidies,’ I explained to my fellow traveller, “were partly designed to help keep farmers in business when the weather or prices or both went pear shaped.”
I pointed out that if farmers were unable to continue to produce commodities that formed the basis of the nation’s diet, he and his fellow consumers would find themselves paying more for food.
Furthermore, I continued, we were fast approaching the autumn when we would be planting cereal crops for harvesting the following year. But the forward market suggested there was little prospect of them making a profit (again, just like this year).
“But if growing grain is as high risk as you imply,” the lawyer said, cross-examining me, “why don’t you grow something else?”
I explained that we did grow other crops in a rotation and that some of them were more profitable. I mentioned oilseed rape and sugar beet that, at the time (although not so much now), produced reasonable margins.
“So, why not forget cereals and grow oilseed rape and sugar beet,” he retorted, confident he had found the answer to all my problems. My patience was wearing thin as I informed him about crop diseases and pests and the need to alternate crops to avoid such problems contaminating the soil and to minimise the use of sprays.
“I’m afraid cereals will remain a vital ingredient in our farming,” I went on, “not least because grain is the staple for both humans and many classes of livestock upon which we rely for meat.” And here in Europe, I continued, we have soils and a climate that are capable of growing better yields of wheat and barley than anywhere else in the world.
Paradoxically, however, I smiled, the harvest month of August is statistically one of the wettest moths of the year and we seldom get a straight run at harvesting without some kind of disruption from rain.
“Why can’t you harvest in the rain?” enquired the lawyer. And I had to go through the basics of the harvesting operation and the need for the crop to be dry enough to go through the combine, never mind the cost of drying wet grain. “So, why don’t you harvest at a different time of year?” he asked.
And his charge-out rate was probably several hundred pounds an hour.
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob
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