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Comment

13 March 1999

Comment

All over bar the shouting

APOLOGIES to our Gallic readers, but history repeatedly proves the truth of the bon mot: the French are always revolting…

And sure enough, the Agenda 2000 talks kicked off with a bang in Brussels, courtesy of coach loads of voluble, excitable French farmers, who arrived to demonstrate. There were a few British faces too.

Water cannons, whistles, fire crackers, burning tyres, rotten eggs – you name it; all the paraphernalia required to set the scene for the modern demo.

Not surprisingly, the mood inside the meeting room was equally belligerent, and the talks broke down in deadlock after a clash between the French and German contingent.

By the time Crops arrives on your doorstep, it may be that an agreement has been reached. We must hope so. The Agenda 2000 reform is vital for the industry. If we cannot come to a consensus as to how costs will be contained, Europes farm businesses will be heading down the road to nowhere.

It is the farm ministers duty to hammer out a deal. If they dont, then they are failing in their responsibility towards Europe, and should consider resignation. A delay to CAP reform will only prolong the agony – and the decision will then pass to the heads of state, when they next meet on 24 March in Germany. If the farm ministers cant come up with their own solution, they will have one imposed from above.

Change is inevitable – and it will be painful. But the longer we wait, the worse the medicine might be.

OSR feels the squeeze

IT SAYS a lot for how valuable oilseed rape is as a break crop in UK rotations. Even with those swingeing area aid cuts and the dramatic fall in prices, growers are expected to stay with the crop (see page 26).

But is their loyalty going to be stretched just too far this year? The rape market has now slipped to £110-130/t. These are the lowest prices since 1992 when the old subsidy system was first removed.

If youre paying out for more expensive hybrid seed this season, its gloomy news. As the crop value shrinks, the cash benefit of that extra yield follows suit. Calculations by one seed company – which admittedly is putting the case for a conventional variety rather than a hybrid one – put the break even point at a rape price of £100/t. The spot market is not there yet, but new crop prices are coming frighteningly close.

Why is the rape market crashing? The problem is simple: over-supply. The USDA is predicting another record global oilseed crop for 1999, with production in Argentina and Brazil up significantly. Soya leads the way, and other oilseeds tag along behind.

In the long term, the depressed market must reduce the area down to soya, but for now theres no light at the end of the tunnel. No market analysts are brave enough to predict an upturn.

Can oilseed rape hang on in the face of this pressure?

N – at your

convenience

LETS not be coy about this. Did you use the loo this morning? Or were you caught short somewhere out in the field?

Most of us will have used our domestic facilities, but perhaps this is not such a good idea. We are all guilty, it seems, of wasting a precious nutrient resource and flushing it away to a sewage treatment plant. Instead it could be a high nitrogen, low phosphorus fertiliser. And a group of Aussie and Swedish scientists have come up with a solution to separate the urine from our waste.

Its a dual toilet, with two chambers. One is for collecting urine (and just dont ask about the other). Water is added to the urine, and it is then sprayed onto the land using existing irrigation systems. The contents of the other chamber is composted in special bins. Without the urine, the composting process is rapid and the resulting matter can be used as a soil improver.

Extensive testing of the environmental health aspects of this research has shown the hygiene risks are – apparently – minimal. What our supermarket buyers would think is another matter…

According to one of the scientists involved, this dual toilet could be "an important effluent management option for new housing developments outside major cities, or in the eco-villages of the future."

In an interesting footnote to this research, the average Aussie (is that with or without the beer consumption?) generates about 500 litres/year of urine. Thats between 5-10 billion litres for the whole country. Just dont get caught under those irrigators….

No beans in beans

LIKE bangers and mash, or fish and chips, theyre peculiarly British. And like these homely favourites, the winter bean crop doesnt travel well. They are only grown in the UK.

Winter beans suit our arable rotations, they can turn in a reasonably respectable yield (when the weathers on their side) and they are a cheap, no-fuss crop to grow.

But, for a plant breeder, they are the closest thing to a dead duck. Theres not much money, if any, to be made from winter beans. It doesnt help that most growers save their own seed.

So the news that PBI Cambridge is to abandon their winter bean programme is not that surprising. Perhaps its new master, Monsanto, has been cracking the whip.

But it is sad news. Heres why. All the varieties on the Recommended List for winter beans come from PBI Cambridge. It is the only breeder involved in this crop.

The company has stated its intention to continue with varieties in the pipeline – which should keep winter bean growers supplied with new material for a few years. And it will maintain the varieties already around. But at some point, winter bean development must come to a grinding halt without any breeding input.

Thats unless anyone takes over the mantle as sole breeder for this crop. Given that bean breeding has verged on charitable status over the past few years, the price tag for adopting PBI Cambridges programme should surely be insignificant.

So, any takers? It might even be a canny, rather than a kind gesture. After all, the humble bean has escaped the attention of the GM scientists – could it play a role as a guaranteed non GM protein feed source?

Paris SIMA reflects the weather

IT may have been Paris but English weather was very much on the minds of growers attending the SIMA machinery show. Memories of the struggle to get on with spring work last year and the muddy mess that harvest became over much of Continental Europe found echoes on a number of show stands.

There was serious interest in anything that sported tracks or flotation tyres, from the British-built Diablo ATV by Gifford Langley, from Crewe, Cheshire, through to the enormous Matrot and Ropa sugar beet tank harvesters with crab tracking.

Between these two extremes there lay the tracked platform transporters from companies such as Transmanut with its Perkins-engined Transporter 180/50 with a £25,000 price tag, or TSIs Eurotrack with a choice of more powerful Iveco engines from £22,000.

Both had been kitted out for serious top dressing work; the Eurotrack with an Amazone fertiliser spreader which could be quickly refilled from big bags using an on-board crane and a demount system lowering the spreader unit to the ground. Although shown with a Sulky spreader, Transmanuts machine can – if you really want it to – traverse the wettest of fields carrying a drill, sprayer or just about anything else attachable to its three-point linkage.

However, it was harvest 1998 that gave French, German and Italian growers the greatest grief. The Grecav Group, from Italy, had recognised that and brought along their rubber track fittings for combines and tractors. About £3,000 will set up your Claas, Deutz, Case or Massey combine for the paddy fields of Suffolk this summer.

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Comment

13 February 1999

Comment

That nice Nick needs muscles

Hi, Im Nick. Thats typical of the greeting you get when the minister of agriculture first meets you. And it is that self-deprecating style which stole the show at the NFUs annual conference last week.

NFU president Ben Gill gave Nick Brown the warmest welcome of any minister in recent years. And from then on the farming audience were putty in his hands. The volume of appreciation at the end of the ministers speech belied the difficulties facing so many in the audience.

Does he deserve such homage? The ministers speech didnt raise any eyebrows but it was delivered with easy humour and the convincing sentiment of I am here to learn, not lecture.

And that has been the hallmark of his short tenure in office. He has been out and about meeting real farmers, with real problems in a hectic schedule.

At the conference he fielded questions from the farming audience with the ease of someone who has been in the industry for years – not just over six months. Okay his flunkies will have prepared the groundwork, but he was convincing in his understanding of the difficulties facing the industry – whether it was on pesticides or poultry, beef or brassicas.

Mr Browns arrival couldnt be better timed. His open approach is without doubt what our beleaguered industry needs. On integrity and intelligence he wins hands down.

But what about influence? He was quick to admit that although he would not support a pesticide tax himself, there were others in the cabinet that could overule him.

This example illustrates the key issue: Mr Brown may not have the muscle in his own cabinet that British farmers need. It is no secret that agriculture is at the bottom of the cabinet heap – it was under Conservative rule and is so now.

If farming does not have the influence in Westminster it needs, where does it leave British farming in Europe? Perhaps it is time for Mr Nice Guy to take up muscle building.

Trading places

BREATHE a sigh of relief. It seems farmers are no longer the villains of the piece – that dubious honour has gone to the supermarkets.

Stories about sky-high retailing profits, deserted town centres, and bully-boy marketing tactics have edged agriculture out of the headlines.

Meanwhile the farmer is being looked on more kindly. At long last, consumers are beginning to appreciate the truth about the agricultural recession. The sad plight of livestock farmers and the difficulties faced in all sectors have struck home.

But when shoppers take their trolleys up the aisles, the prices are just as high as ever. Lamb on the meat counter is still a luxury item. Yet sheep are being abandoned outside RSPCA offices, because the feed bills are too expensive and market prices too high.

The problem is not confined to the livestock sector. Research by land agents Knight Frank show that over the past 20 years, the cost of a loaf of bread has quadrupled. In the same period, wheat prices have fallen in real terms. Where is the money going?

The review of supermarket profits, undertaken by the Office of Fair Trading, is due out shortly. Lets hope it comes up with some ideas on how to bridge the gap between farm gate prices and those in the shopping basket.

Wise up on resistance

THE warning bell has sounded – growers ignore it at their peril. Wheat mildew resistant to the strobilurins has been identified in northern Germany and it has multiplied fast, taking the scientists by surprise (see page 14).

The problem was exacerbated by little-and-often spray programmes which gave the fungus the chance to adapt. That could easily happen here.

Naturally, the agchem companies response is to suggest that cutting rates is unwise – but they would say that, wouldnt they. Strob chemistry is expensive; its inevitable that rates will fall.

More helpful would be advice on the best triazole/strob mixtures for lessening the risk of resistant mildew. With T1 spray timings approaching, that information is needed now.

The agchem manufacturers have a responsibility to their customers, and should do all they can to prolong the effective life of these products. It must make sense for their profits, too.

They should bite the bullet and issue guidelines soon, even if it means – horror of horrors – they have to endorse another companys fungicide. With earlier resistances, growers have learnt lessons the hard way: prevention is better than cure.

Lets turn the CAP green

THE Government has said, many times, that it wants to bolt on environmental benefits to the reformed CAP. The public and growers alike would applaud this sentiment.

But so far successive agriculture ministers have failed to come up with practical ways of achieving this. Theres the huge problem of defining exactly what an "environmental benefit" is. Then theres the problem of policing and monitoring environmental impact on the countryside.

Last but not least, are the economics. UK growers have to be allowed to operate in a way which generates a profit – or the system is unsustainable, however you define the term.

So congratulations are due to the Wildlife Trusts, a body which has devised the first practical answer to this knotty problem. In a comprehensive report, it outlines a way which an agri-environment scheme could be fitted to the support system. Farmer input at the design stage has made all the difference – this scheme is one which includes muddy boot knowledge of wildlife and agricultural production.

The report suggests that payments of up to £200/ha could be made available to more environmentally proactive farmers for managing or creating habitats such as hedgerows or ponds. And it outlines exactly how.

If every grower joined the scheme, the cost to the taxpayer would be a maximum of £1.6 billion – which is about half of what is currently paid out to UK growers under the CAP.

So the books could be balanced by switching half of the CAP cash into agri-environment linked payments instead. Then, once production subsidies come to an end, the framework would be in place to support environmental objectives.

The Wildlife Trusts report should be on the table in front of agriculture minister Nick Brown when the Agenda 2000 debate starts next month. Nothing remotely similar has been suggested by other EU states. If the Government is really serious about environmental reforms, then this scheme shows how it might be achieved.

Organics has a bad hair day

WONDERING whether to switch into organics? If you can believe the marketing hype, its where the profits are for the future. But is it a real market – or the retailers creation?

Try this for size, as spotted on the toiletries counter just a few shelves away from the organic produce: "Herbal essences shampoo – with herbs grown under certified organic conditions, no petrochemicals or pesticides, in mountain spring water."

Thats not all. The plastic container is "recyclable", the formula is "biodegradable" and no animal by-products are used. The ingredients derive from "pure, renewable plant sources" only.

What a pity this image of perfect political correctness has to be spoilt by that mandatory full list of ingredients, as follows:

Aqua, sodium laureth sulfate, cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium lauryl sulfate, linoleamidopropyl pg-dimonium chloride phosphate, parfum, cocamide mea, sodium chloride, dmdm-hydantoin, methyl paraben, disodium edta copper, citric acid, rosmarinus officinalis, jasminium officinale, citrus aurantium dulcis, propylene glycol, diazolidinyl-urea, magnesium nitrate, magnesium chloride, methylchloroisothiazolinone, methyl isothiazolinone, Cl 19140, Cl 60730, Cl 15510 disodium edta, propyl-paraben, benzoic acid….

Now thats a tank mix and a half; would it get through the rigours of the PSD testing system?

Perhaps our agchem manufacturers could pick up a few marketing tips. A few pretty flowers on the pack, a few choice words – and they could be selling that Roundup or Mantra to a whole new clientele.

Joking apart, we need to beware. A cynic might worry that the organic option is being built on a foundation of lies, damned lies and …clever marketing. Is this the case?

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17 October 1998

Comment

Lightening up the economic gloom

NO DOUBT about it – times are as hard as theyve ever been. Two years ago, the profit on an acre of arable land was something like £160, according to Northants-based land agents Samuel Rose. Their calculations say this has shrunk to a frightening £10/acre this season.

Certainly arable businesses are in the doldrums. But the industry should realise that hopeful signs are beginning to emerge from the gloom.

First, grain prices. We reported in our last issue Dalgetys optimism on future markets. That is backed by the economists at the HGCA, who at a recent conference took the plunge and made uncharacteristic predictions on prices (see page 28). Although they hedged the forecasts around with health warnings, the message is of a £10/t rise by next harvest, and a £5/t increase for the year after.

Second, interest rates. The UK has been out on a limb for a long time. In Germany, the rate is 3.3%, in the US 5%, in Japan 0.5%. Meanwhile weve suffered under the straitjacket of 7.5% – an extraordinary situation given the relative lack of inflationary pressure in the UK economy. The 0.25% fall announced by the Bank of England is welcome news. If the UK is ever to come in line with its European partners on the euro, we must go much further still. But this is a step in the right direction.

Third, the pound is weakening. Last week the green pound was devalued by 1.72%, which means an increase in many agricultural support prices by 1.75%. It will also help exporters.

These are all positive financial signals for arable businesses. Their message is that things will get better – we just dont know exactly when.

Organics all boxed off

AT A time when milkmen have become a rare species, and the bread van is consigned to history, it may come as a surprise to hear of the success of a new doorstep delivery service.

Organic vegetable boxes, dropped off at households once a week, have been adopted by many organic producers and suppliers as the most effective means of marketing their produce.

Perhaps the surprise is part of the fun, particularly for London households out of touch with whats happening in the fields.

Can this initiative last – or is it a short term novelty? In spite of recent publicity, supermarket backing and Government support, organic production still makes up just 1% of production.

At this low level, box distribution to enthusiast buyers seems to make sense. But if organic shoppers were able to buy just what they wanted, when, and at the right price from their local supermarket, then box deliveries with their random contents might not appear as attractive.

Distribution and marketing is a key problem for organic producers, as our feature on Guy Watsons £1.5m business explores (page 26). But its been a hurdle for conventional vegetable producers too. Eventually, they had to invest in packhouses to satisfy their supermarket customers. The big buyers need the security of knowing they can source quality product, in high volumes from one supplier.

The odds are that as they grow larger, organic producers will be forced down the same road, if they want to "deal with the devil" and sell to supermarkets. But where would that leave box deliveries? Back on the shelf, perhaps?

Rhizomania on the march

EIGHT new cases of the sugar beet disease rhizomania have been confirmed this year, including serious outbreaks on Elveden Estates, Norfolk. This adds about another 1,000ha to the previous total infected area of 2,800ha.

But this seasons score isnt quite as bad as the experts were anticipating. In their trial plots, rhizomania had gone on the rampage following the warm spell in late May. So the worry was that the disease was going to be far worse than it actually transpired.

More troubling for growers is the fact that the partially resistant variety Ballerina doesnt seem to be holding out as well as expected. It is widely grown elsewhere in Europe, but doesnt appear to be as resistant on British light sandy soil. (See Letter to the Editor, page 46)

There are two other resistant varieties – Rosana and Rebecca – further back in the NIAB pipeline. Resistant varieties actually slow down the rate of disease expansion, they dont just mask its effects. So anyone who suspects they may be heading for problems would be well advised to use resistant types to gain a little extra breathing space. The industry desperately needs new resistant varieties – this should be taken into account as decisions are made on next years Recommended List.

&#8226 As host of the BEET UK harvesting demonstration on Wednesday 21 October at Aubourn Farming, Lincolnshire, grower Philip Wynn is understandably nervous of disease contamination. All visitors are being asked to arrive in clean vehicles without mud attached, and clean boots will be the order of the day. Rhizomania apart, anyone who finds suspect root rots in beet now being harvested should bring samples along for inspection at the plant clinic run by IACR Brooms Barn at BEET UK.

IT takes a hard man with a cast iron stomach to promote the cause of UK malting barley in China. Step forward Balclay Follest who joined Tony Blair on his recent trade visit to the Far East.

A veteran of more than one encounter with roasted scorpion, snake bile, and unidentified brains of furry creatures, Borders grower Barclay will be taking the chair at the more conventionally-catered Crops Scottish Conference in Perth on 10 November. If you want to catch up on the latest prospects for malting barley, Scottish Natural Heritages Battleby Centre is the place to be.

Not least for tales of Barclays culinary exploits but also to hear another China hand, John Calder of the Scottish Export Company, report on his perception of this and other markets.

With hints of a small recovery in cereal prices next year and opportunities for potato growers, the mood in Perth is set to be one of determined optimism from speakers whose livelihood is just as bound up in the fortunes of the agricultural industry as that of growers.

See page 10 for more details.

Scottish Agronomys Huw Phillips will outline the cost benefits of new technology including chemistry, varieties and precision farming.

Agronomist David Hudson, of Sutton Bridge Ltd, will detail the factors that will make Scottish seed potatoes first choice for English ware growers.

Welcome aboard…

LATEST recruit to the Crops technical writing team is Liverpool University plant science graduate Lucy Stephenson who has just completed an MSc in farm and rural business management at the Scottish Agricultural College and Aberdeen University.

An accomplished hedgelayer, Lucy is also Crops resident expert on bananas, button squash and zucchini, having worked on organic and fruit farms in Australia. She replaces Tia Rund who will be writing in future for a wider audience from an East Anglian base.

…and on to pastures new

ITS been a privilege in this job to see so many farms close up, writes Tia Rund.

Never have I been more conscious of that than the day I visited the Manydown Companys LEAF demonstration farm in Hampshire.

Harvest was in full flight and farm director Richard Stirling was up to his ears, but couldnt have been more accommodating. As we toured the estate, between acting as relief on one of the combines, I was impressed by integrated crop management in action.

That day came back when I saw him again this month at the launch of the MAFF-sponsored report Restoring Confidence in Farming – the role of integrated systems.

He spoke again about conservation headlands and beetle banks and soil structure and all the things that go to make up ICM, or integrated farm management as he prefers to call it. He spoke of ICM as a way to put skill, craft and pride back into agriculture.

But he also spoke of the opportunities he creates to demonstrate ICM – to other growers curious about LEAF, to school parties, to customers of Manydowns farm shop and, of course, to nosy journalists.

There are two sets of people who need their confidence in farming restored – farmers, and their customers. MAFFs report may go some way to convince the former that they neednt lose out on efficiency or profit by adopting an environmental approach.

What about the rest of the population? If communication is the key, its the media thats capable of turning the lock. And whos job is it to convince them? Not the NFU, according to its representative at the same conference.

So who does that leave? Richard Stirling, fortunately.

And you.

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3 October 1998

Comment

Strobilurins: the verdict

WAS it worth the expense? Growers will now be weighing up whats in the barn, against the extra cost of the strobilurin fungicide chemistry, writes Gilly Johnson.

Judging by the comments from our readers, consensus is that the strobs have had an effect on both yield and quality. Whether this is solely due to new chemistry is open to question – because much wheat seems to have done rather well south of the Border even where conventional triazoles were used.

That said, trials evidence does back the much publicised yield boost from strobilurins. BASF, the agchem manufacturer responsible for the Landmark mix (kresoxim-methyl with epoxiconazole, aka Opus), has released the results of its 1998 trials which show that Landmark and its sister formulation, Mantra (which has an added mildewicide element), are worth the extra spend.

Cries of "But they would say that, wouldnt they?" can be countered by the companys realistic approach. It isnt banging the drum about a few cases of 10% yield increase. Instead it has averaged out results across a range of sites and different wheat varieties to come up with a more believable 4% yield boost, as compared with the best of conventional chemistry, apparently costed in at a similar level.

At grain prices of £70/t, that means an extra £28/ha in the bank. And even if – heaven forbid – markets were to tumble down to £45/t, the kresoxim-based fungicides would still be economically worthwhile, says BASF.

For the technically minded, the comparisons were with two half-rates of Landmark at T1 and T2 as against a robust but not over-the-top conventional programme of Opus (half and three-quarter rates) and Tern (fenpropidin) at T1 and T2, followed by a low rate of Folicur (tebuconazole) at T3.

To anyone whos shelled out on strobs this year, its reassuring to see this story backed by independent ADAS research, funded by HGCA levy cash (see p8). The case for strobilurins on barley is less convincing because the gap between the cost of equivalent conventional programmes is so much greater.

There remain many unanswered questions. Some varieties do seem to react more to the strob effect than others – and its not just a matter of inherent disease susceptibility. From the BASF trials, Equinox, Consort, Riband and Caxton have all shown significantly greater response to Landmark, as compared with triazoles alone, than other wheats.

But in the ADAS trials, some contradictions appear. It seems to be less worthwhile to use Landmark on Riband, but Charger, Spark and Hereward all benefited more. Why the disparity?

Then theres the green straw problem. This isnt solely down to strobilurin chemistry – the season has played a part as well. Harvest was not an early one; sunshine was lacking and crops struggled to ripen off. But theres no doubt that the new products appear to have exacerbated the delay. Growers dont want to have to spend extra on pre-harvest treatments. Perhaps by tweaking the spray timings, this problem might be avoided?

Overall, the verdict must be a thumbs up for strobilurins. But we need answers, and quickly, on how to make the most from these unquestionably expensive tools.

Drilling dilemma

UH-Oh! – just as you thought you had that rotation sussed…

Drillings are being geared up for Agenda 2000. Setting the scene for a maximum first wheat hit next year, theres 10% more oilseed rape going into the ground this autumn.

But perhaps this isnt such a clever move after all. EU farm commissioner Franz Fischler may be having second thoughts. The upheaval in the worlds financial markets might force him to change plan, according to a recent report in the Financial Times.

Last month a meeting of European farm ministers was told that Mr Fischler had ordered a new series of studies on market prospects and farm incomes, in the light of global financial problems. Russias turmoil is a particular worry, given its potential role as a big customer for European exports.

Its thought that Mr Fischler will do everything he can to push through the Agenda 2000 proposals as they stand; hes made it plain that his reform of the CAP takes top priority. But this is no guarantee of what lies ahead. The details may yet be overhauled.

Deadlines on Agenda 2000 are pressing. Growers are having to take the possible changes into account now, as they drill the crops that will precede those to be harvested in 2000 under the new system.

Its unfair to burden the industry with further uncertainty at the last minute. The agricultural sector desperately needs to know what the rules will be, as quickly as possible. Politicians, take note.

Are you in or out of ACCS?

MORE than 5,000 growers are signed up members of the Assured Combinable Crops Scheme. Thats above the targets set by the scheme organisers. They are happy with the response theyve had, and are looking forward to bringing in more members for the 1999 harvest.

Yet the grumblers continue to stir the pot. The latest revelation is that the Office of Fair Trading has become involved in assessing all the assurance schemes in the crop sector. Although the anti-lobby will milk this suggestion for all that it is worth, it is a red herring.

Whats at stake is food safety, and this issue will carry the day. And it should be remembered that the ACCS and its sister schemes for trade and horticulture are voluntary; no-one is being forced to join.

Five thousand growers have voted with their feet. They easily outnumber those who are making such loud protests about anti-competitiveness. But time will prove which side is right – and who has lost out. Can you risk the waiting idly by to find out?

Where the real crisis lies

THE "Worst crisis in living memory" was the headline. The subject? East Anglian arable farms.

A firm of accountants put together this message of gloom and doom from a survey of their clients in the East Anglian arable heartland. Sure enough, it was picked up by the media, particularly the regional papers. No doubt the accountancy firm received the publicity it desired.

This message was disingenuous at best, harmful at worst. Yes – times are hard for arable growers. Prices are at rock bottom, the pound has been painfully strong and there is uncertainty ahead. But compared to the fortunes of the livestock and hill sector, arable businesses have escaped the worst.

Families are being forced to abandon hill holdings they have farmed for generations. Its adding insult to injury for them to hear the complaints of the arable sector. And it makes the public less inclined to take the true disaster seriously – the fact that large areas of our countryside will be laid to waste.

Arable businesses are facing tough times, but in the early 1990s they enjoyed good profits, as the Government is only too well aware. The industry should rightly give priority to the livestock sector – thats where the crisis headlines truly belong.

When change could use a helping hand

GO FORTH and diversify. How many times have you heard that said?

Of course, this advice makes sound business sense, and deserves encouragement, when the combinable cropping sector is in the doldrums. But be warned: making a success of diversification isnt just a matter of budgets, market surveys and investing a lot of management time.

A salutary tale from the dairy sector highlights the bureaucratic broken glass liable to be strewn in front of anyone with bright ideas for rural regeneration. You may not have heard of Bonchester cheese, but it was much enjoyed by the customers of Harrods and Fortnum & Masons – and delighfully graced the Crops table prior to our annual Scottish Conference (10 Nov at Perth, by the way).

This exclusive soft cheese has however been strangled by red tape. The diversification project, started 18 years ago by Borders farmer John Curtis, has ceased.

Mr Curtis blames ever-increasing regulation and demands for repeated inspections of his premises and equipment. Its a story liable to be repeated elsewhere, when growers encounter local planners and bureaucrat jobsworths, insisting on rigid interpretation of structure plans and regulations. But common sense should dictate making a distinction between rural enterprises and factory-type businesses.

No-one is asking for exemption from standards designed to protect the consumer or the general public. But it doesnt make sense to have four to five expensive inspections a year, when one is enough to establish whether a new value-added enterprise is functioning properly and safely.

The planners may not be that keen to encourage rural diversification. Perhaps it makes their lives more difficult if industry moves out of the urban fringe estates and on to the farm. But with arable redundancies increasing, farm diversification may be the only way to keep rural jobs. It needs official support – not official hindrance.

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1 August 1998

Comment

Trials Ruling Opens Up A Can Of Worms

ITS funny how any row between two parties takes on mammoth proportions as soon as the lawyers are brought in.

Complications come to the surface, and the legal bills go sky high. So someone benefits – but its not the protagonists.

Thats just whats happened with the legal challenge brought by the organic maize grower who objected to GM trials next door.

Although the Court of Appeal dismissed his plea regarding the GM trials, it has brought to light the fact that MAFFs national list trialling system is not strictly in line with existing legislation.

The small print of the Ministrys own regulations calls for two years of trials results to be attached to applications for varieties to be included in national list trials. And only varieties which have been through the national list system are allowed to go through to the Recommended List trials – so this affects most crops grown in the UK.

This data stipulation has fallen into abeyance in recent times. It is no longer considered necessary, because the data is not taken into account with the final verdict on the variety. So plant breeders, MAFF and NIAB – the last as MAFFs trials agent – have all operated on the basis that the extra two years data is not required.

Now the balloon has gone up. If the lawyers had their way and the legislation was enforced to the letter, then it would outlaw most of the varieties now grown in the UK. This situation would be a nonsense. The whole industry would face crippling bills, and the supply of seed would dry up.

Theres no sensible alternative: the legislation needs to be brought up to date with the current commercial practice, and should apply retrospectively. The pity is that the situation has now become muddled with the GM issue.

The anti-GM lobby will fight to keep the law as it stands, to delay the entry of GM varieties.

MAFFs legal department is now working overtime to sort out the muddle. It should never have been allowed to happen in the first place – but now that it has come to light, a solution must be found, fast, that doesnt jeopardise growers incomes.

Not mad, bad or dangerous to know…

ARE farmers psychologically different from the rest of the population? No, its not 1 April – this is the title of a scientific paper put together after four years research by psychologists, statisticians and agricultural economists.

Anyone who has contact with farmers might insist that the answer is yes – and that they dont need a huge chunk research grant to come to that conclusion. Ask any rep and theyll say that farmers are the most difficult, awkward customers – perhaps not such a bad thing seen from the other side of the fence…

Heres the official answer – and its good news. Farmers are different – but only in that they are "more intelligent" than the general population. No, its true. Part of this result could be explained by the fact that the test includes an aspect of braininess called "crystallised intelligence". Thats psycho babble for wisdom due to age and experience, rather than quick wittedness.

But when it comes to personal characteristics, farmers are just as agreeable, open and conscientious as the rest of society. They have the same ability to cope under stress, and are only as neurotic as average. And they are definitely not "sad loners" – the extroversion rating is up there with the best.

Theres just one trait that isnt covered – the happiness quotient. No help there. Or perhaps the psychologists didnt have a scale that went low enough, given the current economic climate…

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5 July 1997

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