15 August 1997

Checking out Czech potential

By Johann Tasker

TWO pioneering British farmers are finally reaping the rewards of farming behind the former Iron Curtain in central Europe.

Charles Everett and his colleague, Chas Kane, started farming 602ha (1490 acres) of arable land in the Czech Republic last year. This summer they are harvesting their first crop of winter wheat.

The hardy Czech milling variety Samanta – drilled at 200kg/ha (178lbs/acre) in poor conditions last autumn – yielded a disappointing 5.5t/ha when first cut on July 26. Although Czech wheat currently fetches only £72/t, the low cost of farming in central Europe helps compensate for poor yields and low prices, says farm manager, Mr Everett.

The only sprays applied were a broadleaf herbicide and a growth regulator, costing just £30/ha (£12/acre). "We had no seed-borne diseases that warranted spraying this year – just the odd patch of septoria and powdery mildew," Mr Everett explains. "So far, weve had none of the problems wed get back home. If we did have, we wouldnt be making any money."

Air pollution from the inefficient power stations of north Bohemia provides local farmers with the nitrogen equivalent of 60kg/ha (48units/acre) free of charge every year. Fertiliser in the more conventional form of urea was applied this spring to provide a further 170kg/ha (136units/acre) of nitrogen. A comprehensive soil survey on the farm, 50 miles north-west of Prague, revealed that no phosphate or potash was needed.

Mr Everetts winter wheat is expected to return a gross margin of only £287/ha (£115/acre) and there are no area aid payments in the Czech Republic to boost returns. Fixed costs, however, are much lower than in the UK. Czech farmworkers currently earn less than £1 an hour and good Czech arable land can be rented for as little as £25/ha (£10/acre).

"This land had never been pushed hard," says Mr Everett. "But I think as we begin to farm more intensively, we could face future problems."

Mr Everett stumbled across six disused military bunkers on a nearby former Warsaw Pact air base which he has rented as storage space until grain prices rise later in the season. Each bunker holds around 450t for a monthly rental of only £27.

Mr Everett is now negotiating to rent another 400ha (1000 acres) from local landowners eager to see their land well farmed.n

Off-loading Samanta milling wheat. Inset: Farm manager Charles Everett (right) and Czech tractor driver Jaroslav Boucek discuss the days work on the 602ha farm.


Czech wheat gross margin (£/ha)

Output:

yield5.5t/ha

@ £72/t396

(sold off field)

total output396

Variable costs:

seed33

fert46

spray30

Total variable109

Gross margin287