Farmer Focus Arable: Rail trip north an eye-opener for Robert Law

In the gap between Easter and summer, I took the family to visit relatives in northern Scotland and, as always, let the train take the strain.

This is an excellent way to assess what’s been sown, the health of crops and harvest prospects. As we moved from Nottinghamshire into Yorkshire the effects of last autumn’s conditions and lower commodity prices became evident. Quite a lot of arable land lay idle, perhaps after failed winter rape crops, and much of those remained extremely patchy.

Moving into Scotland the picture changed again with much spring barley, apparently sown in good conditions, emerging well.

The problems with trying to market the rest of last harvest’s barley plus disappointing contract prices for the 2009 crop led us not to sow any spring barley this year. Time will tell whether we’ve made the right decision.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast than selling lambs and trying to market and deliver the remainder of the 2008 crop. I could sell many more than we produce each week. Buyers end their calls asking what price I am looking for and aren’t in a position to argue.

With rape and grain at present, however, trading is not the only problem. Getting it moved and delivered is another. With a lot of our grain on buyer’s call contracts we’re carrying a lot more stock at this time of year than usual.

Although there is a significant difference between old and new crop prices we shouldn’t get too carried away. The gap won’t compensate us for the greatly increased costs of growing crops for the 2009 harvest.

Here’s an interesting statistic for the next time you visit your lawyer: “The number of active arable farmers in 1970 were 100,000; in 2008 there were 10,000. The number of practising solicitors in 1970 numbered 18,000; in 2009 they totalled 108,000.”

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