David Richardson: Where do we go from this year’s harvest?

Many farmers will be unable to sing “All is safely gathered in” at this year’s harvest thanksgiving services. A month ago there was a promise of bumper crops. Now many farmers face the worst disaster imaginable. Only the harvest of 1912 (according to my late father), when in Norfolk sheaves floated across fields, comes close.

So, what can be learned from harvest 2008? Is this summer attributable to climate change and the pattern we should expect in future? Must we plan for fewer harvesting days in August? We don’t know, of course. Although the more than averagely difficult harvests of the past few years make you wonder. And we farmers do tend to farm according to the prevailing conditions during the previous year.

One reaction might be to grow crops that ripen sooner, to move as much of the harvest as possible into July and early August. We could, for instance, plant more winter oilseed rape. Well, we could if the land was dry enough and cleared of standing wheat. So that won’t work in many situations this year.

We could drill more winter barley and it’s not yet too late for that. But all such decisions must consider the market as well as the weather. It would be too easy to over-produce niche crops to change harvest time only to find everyone else had the same idea, pushing values down to uneconomic levels.

Ideally, we need earlier-ripening varieties of winter wheat. I have little doubt plant breeders will do their best to provide them. But from discovery to commercially available quantities of seed takes about 10 years. So no immediate prospect of help from that direction.

The other approach is mechanical. Greater combining capacity would enable more to be done when the weather allows. During the last 10 or 12 difficult years, economies were made for obvious reasons. Have we overdone the cuts? Is it time to gear up again? Is the cash available? Will future commodity prices stand it?

For with the greatest respect to machinery manufacturers, who have increased the output of their machines remarkably over recent years, the prices they charge, driven up by Third World demand for steel, means this cannot be an automatic choice.

Machinery rings and co-operative arrangements (which are excellent as a rule and in which we on this farm are involved) can lead to problems in a year like this. There is always someone at the back of the queue whose work is not done at the optimum time.

So, what to do? Change cropping? Re-capitalise? Co-operate? Who knows? I merely recount the following – and this does not constitute a recommendation.

Thirty years ago, we had a harvest on this farm almost as frustrating as this year’s. We decided to install a continuous-flow drier, having previously relied on a ventilated floor that had proved inadequate. The next year all our grain came into the barn at under 16% and we didn’t start the new drier once.

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I write this with mixed emotions. On one hand, I am intensely grateful that we finished combining about nine days ago and that our crops are in the barn and in no danger of flooding. On the other, I feel almost guilty at our good fortune while others around the country are suffering severe problems – both emotional and financial. What can I do? Not a lot really, except to express my deepest sympathy and hope for better weather soon.

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