30 January 1999

Comment

Comment

Dont panic: its a winter wash-out

GROWERS are washed up – literally. The rain started even before September was out. By October, land had soaked up almost twice the monthly average.

And it hasnt stopped since. The constant wet has broken a number of records. In the Midlands, the all-time January rainfall record was beaten by the middle of the month. But its not just the amount of rain thats the problem – its the lack of a long enough spell to allow machinery onto the land. Around the country, soils havent had a chance to dry out and have slumped disastrously.

Anyone who failed to sow autumn crops in good time, missed the boat. Even those who did manage fast footwork with drilling programmes have suffered – some emerging crops have simply been washed away. See page 8 for our regional round-up of drilling progress – it makes for sobering reading.

No wonder the spring seed market has taken on such a desperate urgency. Anything that can be sown in spring is selling out fast as growers try to plug the gaps in the rotation. Supplies of linseed, spring cereals and spring rape are rapidly evaporating. Last minute juggling with set-aside, helped by the derogation on deadline dates, has enabled growers to switch the worst fields into set-aside to recover some soil structure.

Arguably, Scottish growers are worst hit, because the wet winter follows one of the most difficult harvests ever. Not surprisingly, they are considering any option as a rescue package this spring – even linseed.

The area aid for this year looks tempting but questions are being raised as to whether its a safe route. Some would argue that growing linseed that far north is not compatible with "good agronomic practice" – the key requirement for aid payments.

Heres the official position. The Scottish Office gives linseed the green light, and states that as long as producers give the crop all the inputs and management it requires up until 30 June, then payment will be forthcoming. Linseed doesnt have to be harvested in order to qualify for aid – but picking an early maturing variety such as Norlin would seem sensible.

Spring seed choice apart (page 21-25), the weather has created a number of other headaches, and we make no apologies for devoting a run of pages on survival strategies. In this issue we focus on drilling problems and seed choice; in our next issue, we review what growers should do if the sprayer has had to sit idle all winter. Blackgrass control will need a rethink; the deadline is fast approaching when winter tactics must be abandoned.

Times are tough. There may be little that growers can do about political and economic pressures. But the weather is an old and familiar enemy. With clever management, theres a fighting chance of winning the battle.

Export chic

Euro-style

WHAT is the smart Parisian eating for lunch these days? An elegant three-course meal – fitted in to that leisurely two-hour break midday? Not any longer, it seems.

Fast food has arrived – with the help of the overnight Eurostar express service. Fresh British-made sandwiches are travelling to Paris to keep the office workers happy.

The sandwich craze started in the Paris branch of M&S, but it has spread. Now major French supermarket chains such as Monoprix have jumped on the bandwagon – and only the true British sandwich is acceptable.

The fact that our humble snack staple has gained a toehold in the illustrious capital of haute cuisine is triumph alone. But even better is the fact that this initiative, supported by Food From Britain, helps British wheat earn its keep.

Growers levy cash also supports this export drive, by funding the two HGCA offshoots: British Cereal Exports, and British Cereal Products (BCP) – the department that links with Food from Britain.

Grain exports which are disguised in food items have doubled in the last 10 years – no mean achievement, and BCP must take some of the credit. Hidden exports now account for 3m tonnes of British grain a year. Putting that in context, exports of raw grains work out at about 6.5m tonnes annually. Add up the two, and 36% of the UK crop is exported in one form or another.

But we shouldnt gloat. Eurostar travels both ways – and theres plenty of French food in the UK, remember. Having successfully led the attack in Paris, is it time for BCP to get tough? A blanket ban on all baguettes in the HGCAs new office near Kings Cross, perhaps…

Writing letters to Mr Brown

DO YOU feel you have a say in Government thinking on agriculture? Certainly, Nick Brown wants you to think you do. Theres a letter from him waiting on the mat. Hes asking for your thoughts before travelling to Brussels to hammer out the agreement on Agenda 2000.

Is it genuine consultation, or just a public relations exercise? Sceptics would vote for the latter. Much has been made of the way Agenda 2000 will "revolutionise" agriculture, and the general media has picked up on this Government line but these are the very same proposals we saw a year ago.

Indeed the real power does not lie with Mr Brown; it is in Brussels with the full Council of Ministers.

The Government makes no secret of backing a free market. But its not here yet. Thats the whole point of Agenda 2000 – it is designed to ease the transition to a free market by compensating businesses for the changes ahead. Thats how the higher aid payments within Agenda 2000 are justified.

And no matter how Cambridgeshire farmer Oliver Walston rails against the subsidy system, Agenda 2000 will keep it alive for at least five more years – if not more.

Replying to Mr Browns letter might make you feel better – but dont expect any miracles. Agenda 2000 is practically a done deal; time would be better spent working out what it will mean for your business.

GM pollen on the move

IT WAS bound to happen – the only surprise is that its taken so long to hit the headlines. In Canada, where genetically modified crops are commonplace, the first GM pollen has crossed with conventional crops to give Roundup-resistant rape volunteers – as reported in our sister paper, Farmers Weekly.

Its more of a nuisance rather than a real problem for the grower concerned. The resistant volunteers can be sprayed off easily with another herbicide.

This cross pollination incident occurred between neighbouring fields – which were on the same farm. So presumably the grower was aware that it could happen. But what if pollen blows in from another farm altogether? Does that imply legal liability in terms of the extra costs of controlling GM volunteers? What if GM pollen contaminates an organic crop?

This incident proves that GM crops do carry a health warning, and that the anti-GM lobby is right to be concerned. Rotations will have to be managed carefully if GM crops are to be contained.

But these risks are only manageable if growers have the backing of sound R & D data. Which is why unbiased, independent trials on GM crops are vital.

By destroying GM trials in Europe, protesters are wiping out valuable science. Growers need to know all the information there is about both the risks and the benefits of biotechnology – we cant afford ignorance.

Oilseeds into 2000

17 February 1999 Belton Woods, Belton, near Grantham, Lincs

CROPS has teamed up with Semundo and BASF to bring you a conference that addresses the impact of Agenda 2000 and the advances in biotechnology on UK oilseed production. We seek experience from Canada and the US as well as UK industry views and research to bring a programme that gives you practical guidance on oilseed cropping.

Speakers include:

Melvyn Askew, head of alternative crops and biotech, MAFF

Roy Hathaway, head of arable crops, MAFF

Philip Kimber, UK oilseeds manager, Cargill

Ken Shipley, regional trials director, Velcourt

Bob Morgan, Saskatchewan wheat pool, Canada

David Green, Green Resources, USA

Frank Oldfield, HGCA oilseeds committee

Chris Green, Semundo

Dr Kerr Walker, SAC

Dr David Stokes, University of Nottingham

Dr Peter Lutman, Rothamsted Experimental Station

Tickets cost £47.50 including VAT from Lindy Tonguc at BASF on 0161 488 5430 or write to PO Box 4, Earl Road, Cheadle Hulme, Cheadle, SK8 6QG for tickets.