14 January 2000

Improved beet yields mean less farm income…

There is little to celebrate at Hoe Hall this month with sugar

beet returns making dismal reading. Simon Wragg reports

OWNER James Keith leafs through some of this years sugar beet returns in sombre mood. "It appears weve been busy fools lifting the last of the sugar beet," he says. Yields have been better than anticipated, but in the quota restricted beet regime more can so often mean less in terms of total farm income.

The combined farming business has a quota for 2800t. In the past a budgeted yield of 50t/ha (20t/acre) has been used to calculate the area needed to fulfil this limit. But this figure is gradually being pushed upward on the back of increasing yields, especially during the past two wet summers. But he is reluctant to reduce the area too much and risk shortfalls and subsequent quota reductions.

"With a proportion of our beet grown behind the pig herd on light land, there is always a risk of drought in the summer curtailing output. If that happens, we risk one of the best gross margin crops on the farm."

Light land

Establishing the crop on light land is normally not a problem at Hoe Hall, but the difference a wet or dry season can make on the crops progress is enormous. The dry years of the late 1980s saw yields on some areas plummet to 34t/ha (14t/acre). And this year, in contrast, Mr Keith anticipates the late lifted light land clean beet yield will be nearer 70t/ha (28t/acre).

"It makes it very hard to plan. In future, we may have to live more dangerously and be prepared not to achieve quota in the odd year. That is especially the case when the current price of C quota at about £3/t is not enough to cover lifting and clamping charges.

"For every hectare of C beet we grow, it is potentially wasting income from breakcrops such as oilseed rape or beans – with margins predicted around £550/ha. We could also gain the big advantage of being able to drill wheat earlier and producing a 11t/ha crop rather than being forced to drill spring crops on some areas."

Farm manager Simon Brock says at least 12ha (30 acres) could be redirected to other crops.

"The really frustrating thing is that we would be better off now if we did catch rhizomania, and had to grow only combinable break-crops, but were allowed to contract out our beet tonnage at £12/t. Armchair farming has a certain attraction," says Mr Keith.

Elsewhere, prospects look little better. The loss of one stockman from the outdoor pig unit was ill-timed and heaped extra work on the three remaining staff, Nick Butler, Mellie Hudson and Chris Macleod. "Credit is due to them," says Mr Keith. "Managing outdoor pigs in winter can be tough enough when you know they are making money. This year it is worse. The staff have worked very hard right across the New Year period."

Some conditions on the unit have become a real headache. "Some of our outdoor finishers are currently learning to swim and there has been an unwelcome rise in overlying on piglets in the farrowing pens. That has been due to wet bedding and it is down to stockmanship now to keep plenty of dry straw in the huts to reduce further problems."

The depressed state of the pig industry shows no sign of abating. "We are fortunate that our pigs from this farm are now sold on an agreed price band, thus limiting the lower and upper price. Sadly, the bottom of this price band is just below our break-even and the top of the price band does not allow sufficient profit to fill the enormous hole the last year has left. We feel committed to stay with pigs on this farm to try and maintain the spread of enterprises and the jobs they support, but the situation has become knife-edged due to the losses sustained."

The organic pigs on the off-lying land continue to breed well but grow slower than anticipated. This is clearly costing dearly in extra food, and organics will never be the answer to the pig industrys malaise, due to the very high cost of production, he adds.

Recreational activities

With so many aspects of agriculture under pressure, it is not surprising alternative sources of income are being investigated. One area is holiday lets, says Mr Keith. "We have a cottage which is vacant and in need of refurbishment on the estate. Tourism is popular here as we are just 30 minutes from the Norfolk coast and have numerous recreational activities on the doorstep."

Funds could be drawn from the regions Objective 5b status (or its successor) to pay for the propertys overhaul, or it could be let out locally, possibly to farm staff. "There is genuine need to have stockmen on site and mostly it is necessary to offer a house to attract staff to work in this area; but there are drawbacks."

"With farmworkers wages at or near other manual skilled labour, the argument for a subsidised or tied house has declined," he argues. Also, in retirement, those workers who have been careful to save can often find themselves paying rent while others are supported by the Department of Social Security. "Ive no problem with having retired staff here, but it does present a moral dilemma over rent levels, and I dont find it fair."

But with increased pressure on rural housing in East Anglia, rental values for farm cottages (and capital values) have increased significantly in recent years, and thus the value of benefit should be reflected in the true cost of employment. "When times were better in agriculture we were happy to turn a blind eye to the opportunities of realising these incomes, but all the sacred cows must be examined and costed."

In future, government policy will see EU funds directed at agriculture via the green box for such farm projects as countryside stewardship and diversification. As a result, Mr Keith is looking to reposition the farms activities to benefit from these new sources of assistance.

"It is an opportunity we cannot afford to ignore when income is being squeezed elsewhere. All our resources must be used in whatever way we can to remain viable. We have got two Countryside Steward-ship schemes accepted which should be a step in this new direction." &#42

FARMFACTS

&#8226 Swanton Morley Farms, based near Dereham, Norfolk, is a 890ha (2200 acres) largely arable unit managed as a family partnership by James Keith, his wife, Victoria, and mother, Penelope.

&#8226 Arable crops cover 90% of the unit. Wheat grown on medium sandy loam soil goes as feed. Barley goes for malting. Sugar beet is also grown. A further 182ha (450 acres) is contract farmed locally.

&#8226 There are two outdoor pig herds; 550-sow conventional and 140-sow organic. Growers are taken to bacon weight in straw yards. A 26-cow suckler herd grazes parkland. Red deer calves are also finished.

&#8226 A number of cottages are let.

&#8226 Farm staff of 12.