Something has just happened that sets farmer against farmer like no other event – the price of wheat has almost doubled in four months.
No farmer is immune from the effects of this and, if the rise is extreme and prolonged, it will bring riches to some and ruin to others.
Farmers are brought up to understand the truism “up corn, down horn” but, as individual farms have become ever more specialised, so its meaning has become ever more significant.
A hundred years ago, a rising wheat price would have been a mixed blessing to the majority of farmers. On one hand they would have made more money from the grain they were growing but their cattle, sheep, pigs or chicken would cost more to feed. But each farm could quickly adjust to the new circumstances by ploughing additional fields up and culling some of the livestock.
Contrast that with today’s farming scene where it is possible to drive for half a day up the eastern half of England and Scotland and not observe a single animal grazing in a field. (A great number of animals remain in the eastern counties, of course, but most of these are pigs and chicken and not obvious to the traveller as many are housed in specialist units and fed on a diet high in cereal content.)
But get away from the east and even there individual farms have become highly specialised. Within a single parish it is now quite common to find that one farmer will have “consolidated” much of the best land into an “arable unit” while another might have expanded into an equally specialist dairy, sheep or beef enterprise.
Much of the blame for this unhealthy trend can be laid at the door of university and agricultural lecturers who have for decades brainwashed their farmer students into believing in the economic benefits of large-scale specialisation without reminding them of the potential lion’s mouth they are putting their heads into. What happens if that particular enterprise happens to be the wrong side of the “up corn, down horn” equation?
Encouraging farms to specialise has also been the unintended consequence of EU subsidy regimes. Invited to judge a farming competition in Essex a few years ago, I remember being puzzled at the large number of deserted livestock buildings on each unit I looked at. It was soon explained to me that the livestock had been “swept out of Essex” as a direct consequence of the 1992 McSharry Reforms and the IACS regime that it introduced.
Prior to this the county had a stable pattern of mixed farming, with livestock grazing forming an important part of an arable rotation. The IACS regime made all of this land eligible for Arable Area Aid at about £300/ha but only if it were cropped each year.
Not surprisingly, the livestock and the skills required to look after them were soon all gone.
On my own farm I still have exactly the same mix of enterprises as I did when I started 30 years ago: A suckler herd (although greatly reduced in size since the withdrawal of the much-missed Suckler Cow Premium), a flock of ewes and an arable enterprise.
All very “inefficient”, I’m sure my agricultural college lecturer (General Agriculture Level One) told me at some point in my “education”. But, as I watch Vladimir Putin shut down his country’s wheat exports for domestic political reasons or speculators in Chicago drive the price of wheat up at a speed not seen since 1973, I can at least relax with the thought that “up corn, down horn” probably won’t ruin me.