15 May 1998

Durum wheat could return to UK fields

POLITICAL lobbying could see durum wheat crops back on UK farms next season.

After a break of five years Harlow Agricultural Merchants is offering buy-back contracts at what it describes as attractive premiums over feed wheat prices for the pasta-making crop.

"Its all down to politics," says HAM director Ian Low.

Built up from 1979, the UK crop reached 11,000ha (27,000 acres) in the mid-1980s.

But UK production effectively died in 1992 with the introduction of targeted aid for traditional producing countries Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, explains Mr Low.

CAP reform in 1992 meant non-traditional producers in northern France and Austria were given access to targeted aid, but England and Germany lost out. That left UK producers with a durum intervention price cut to common wheat level. With a yield only about 75% of conventional feed wheat, that made growing the crop here uneconomic.

"We have campaigned for five years to get a change, arguing that we had a fledgling industry from 1979 to 1992. In Nov 1997, in a fit of generosity, the EU capitulated and granted England and Ger-many a share of the action."

The change of heart provides for a special subsidy of £111/ha (£45/acre) on top of normal cereal aid, he says. Maximum area permitted for the full benefit is 5000ha (12,350 acres). "Above that the aid is cut pro rata. If we grow 10,000ha we will only get half the additional aid."

HAM has kept faith with the crop by carrying out trials in the intervening years. "Varieties have moved on. A variety like Tetradur would be a good choice," says Mr Low. Buyers for the autumn-sown crop, which he suggests is ideally suited to drilling after sugar beet, are Pasta Foods and Allied Mills.