28 December 2001

Whats in store for the crops sector in 2002?

If proof were needed that in

farming optimism counts for

a lot, it can be found on this

years farmers weekly

barometer farms. All bar

one believe their fortunes

will be better next year.

Andrew Blake reports

SOUTH

DO more of the same but better -that is Tim Locks strategy for the coming year.

"Trying to produce more is probably not what the politicians want to hear, and I would like to do other things. But as a tenant my capital resources are limited."

Much stronger guidance from politicians is required, he says.

"The most important thing is that we get firm directions from the government about what they want us to do. If you know where you are going, you can do something about getting there. At the moment we are getting so many different signals."

On a practical level he is quite encouraged, rating prospects eight out of 10.

"Our crops went in well, came up well and we are right up to the button with spraying. But you cant be too optimistic. Prices do not look too exciting.

"But I am glad I decided to go mainly for Group2 wheats – it looks as though they will be in demand."

His main complaint is continuing uncertainty over when IACS cheques will arrive. "Once we know when we are going to get the payment we can put it into our cash flows. At the moment we just cannot tell when we are going to get it."

EAST

WINTER wheat establishment could hardly have gone better, says Stuart Knight.

"But you have to temper that with a bit of pessimism, because with so much drilled and looking so well the price will be depressed. The big question is are these crops going to be worth anything?"

The newly acquired farm, increasing his wheat area, will put extra pressure on the sprayer, particularly at T2 timing when sugar beet and potatoes also vie for attention.

"We shall have 650ha of wheat. I shall probably use local contractors more to help out at peak times, rather than buying a new machine."

Main husbandry thrust will be to reduce unnecessary cultivations. "In the past we have tended to over-cultivate. You only have to look at how well crops have done this autumn in some quite cloddy seed-beds to see the potential for reducing production costs.

"My big wish for 2002 is that our government stands up for British Agriculture more than it does at the moment. When I look at the rest of Europe I feel British farmers never get their just rewards."

SOUTH-WEST

MORE concentration on growing for specific markets is George Hosfords immediate recipe for staying profitable.

In the longer term he sees a good future for industrial crops.

"If I could predict what is going to happen in 2002 I would be working in the City not on a farm.

"The thing most likely thing to affect our operation, apart from a good pair of wellies and rugged determination, will be our ability to cope with whatever is thrown at us. And ideally we need the playing field to level itself off."

Conservation Grade oats and Maris Otter barley for specialist ales promoted in his local pub are two of his first stabs at tapping into specific premium-earning outlets. "We are going to have to do more niche marketing like this."

Looking further, crops for energy must receive more encouragement, he says. "When we can all grow industrial crops and we also have solar and wind energy available, its madness to build more nuclear power stations. We only need a terrorist to fly into Sellafield and we are all up the spout."

Just as World War Two stimulated home agriculture, so too should todays renewed uncertainties, he believes. "Our greatest opportunity could lie in a terrorist threat to worldwide food supplies."

WEST

MAKING a living from arable farming on the light soils of the Cotswolds is becoming much harder than in some other parts of the country, says Tim Morris.

"We just cant get the yields they get on heavier land."

This autumns largely successful UK drilling campaign will do nothing to help, he adds. "There is going to be a huge amount of wheat out there and the market could be swamped."

A recent presentation at Aberystwyth University indicated that arable farms in many areas of the country are struggling and are likely to go out of business, he notes. "I am not sure whether those in the Cotswolds fall into that category."

More contract farming is one possible reaction, provided the correct terms are drawn up, he says. "At least if you are being paid to do contract work it cant be taken away by low prices."

After last years poor oilseed rape results, sulphur supplies will be getting much more attention. "I shall make sure I use a decent dose on the rape and possibly on the cereals. ARC has been seeing responses in both wheat and barley. But until very recently there were also yield depressions, so it is all very confusing."

MIDLANDS

OLIVER Walston for Prime Minister and colour-coded spray containers are among Brian Shaws widely disparate wishes for 2002.

"At least in Oliver we would have someone with a serious understanding of the countryside. Nobody in power seems to have a clue." DEFRA guidance on his Countryside Stewardship Scheme plans has been very slow to arrive, he notes.

More realistically manufacturers co-operation to ensure all insecticides are sold in red containers, herbicides in yellow ones, and fungicides in green would be a big step forward, he says. "It would make spray management so much easier and help cut out potential mistakes."

He also criticises the practice of labelling identical products with different names as unnecessary and costly. "Why do we have to have both Ice and Crystal? It must be cheaper to print only one label."

With little sign that the country will adopt the k before 2005, Mr Shaws strategy is to rely on spreading fixed costs to remain viable. "We have just got to hang in there by trying to be above average on yields and below average on costs, where scale of operation counts.

"We are already operating near the limits, but we have to make sure every machine is working to its full potential."

NORTH

TOP yields, achieved mainly by reacting quickly in all weather windows, remain Les Andersons goal.

That, and ensuring that what he produces is really required, should see the farm prosper in 2002, he believes.

"Yield is still the main way to make money, although we must also try to sell at the best price we can."

He pays tribute to his arable team of Bruce Borthwick, Tommy Wood and Gavin Wyle, who helped achieve last harvests record yields and set next seasons crops up so well.

"I am really optimistic. We have established some cracking crops."

In future more of them, like this autumns Conservation Grade Intro barley for pearling, will have to be grown for specific outlets, he believes. "We have to go more for quality markets – not necessarily to get premiums, but simply to get in and hold on to those markets as the first option and so stay one step ahead.

"If we have not thought it through we will soon be one step behind."

The other route, also being investigated, is to satisfy the environmental market through farm stewardship schemes, he says. "With our ponds and woodlands there is still plenty of scope."

SCOTLAND

WITH some all-barley farms in the area really struggling after last summers appalling harvest, spring barley for malting would be getting very careful scrutiny from Tom Robb had he stayed on as manager.

"The economics of spring barley are getting questionable and I definitely would not be putting all my eggs in that one basket. Winter wheat certainly saved us last season."

Wheat for distilling was making about £20/t more than feed barley recently, he notes. "That is a complete turnaround from last year, when most barley went for malting.

"I would also be trying to home in on expenses and do everything as cheaply as possible. We have always operated on a low budget, and the new owner now seems to be thinking that way."

At the dispersal sale £20,000 secured the new owner the farms main tractor, drill and cultivator, he notes. "He has obviously seen the results we got with that kit. He could easily have spent three times as much."

Had Mr Robb remained on the farm a bigger sprayer would have been the key requirement. "We were quite often struggling with our 12m conventional machine. But I would not have bought new. I would have kept the front tank and probably gone for a second-hand 24m model."

N IRELAND

KEEPING customers for his potatoes happy is top priority in 2002 for Mark McFerran.

"We supply about 10 chip shops in Belfast, a trade we have built up over 10-15 years. It is always a challenge holding on to them and trying to be profitable at the same time. There is plenty of competition and shops also come and go."

Being able to deliver at short notice when required, instead of perhaps only twice a week, is an advantage, he says. "Most shops give us a days notice and we just have to try to fit it in. We like to think we go just that bit further.

"We try to give good service and rectify any problems, for example if there are too many smalls in a bag."

Covered heated storage for keeping bagged potatoes above 8C before delivery is another edge which not all other potential suppliers have, he notes.

"We are also prepared to go on to the open market to help maintain continuity of supply and keep our customers."

In the past, when the farms own production ran out in May or June, it could be hard to win back those who went elsewhere, he explains. &#42