Farmer Focus: Spraying should not be the default option

This delayed drilling business isn’t much fun, is it? The weather and the forecasters appear to be colluding in a wicked game. They forecast a lovely dry week ahead and then throw in a few unexpected overnight downpours to douse the drilling hopes.

However jittery it makes me though, it must be right for both weed, disease and pest control rather than being overreliant on the chemical option.

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I’m trying not to apply chemistry as a default position and indeed a recent review by Niab has revealed that in trials, the average margin response to phoma and light leaf spot sprays is minus £18/ha. And that is with susceptible varieties.

Of course, this masks a wide variation, but that must be increasingly where skilled agronomy is required and the ability and confidence to advise not to spray will be invaluable.

“Attitude to risk” is often an excuse, but if this is a concern, the most resistant varieties should be grown to start with.

We saw another surprising example here this year with our beans – bruchid beetle damage was under the magic 5% mark despite no insecticides being applied at all.

I hope reducing our reliance on one method of pest, disease and weed control will increase our sustainability, but completely banning chemicals won’t help us feed everyone. We need good science to increase sustainability, not a return to a non-existent past rural idyll.

I find it incredibly frustrating that with all the talk from many sides about how to reform the agricultural support system, no one tackles true sustainability head on. It is skirted around with laudable mentions of improving soil, reducing pesticides and helping the environment.

But nowhere do I see, for example, encouragement to use only recycled and renewable P, K and N sources.

And we should reach wider – I heard a familiar story recently about a store full of potatoes being buried as they were too big for the supermarket shelves.

This is complete and utter madness when some in the UK must rely on a demeaning visit to a food bank to survive.

Andy Barr farms 700ha in a family partnership in Kent. Combinable crops amount to about 400ha and include milling wheat and malting barley in an increasingly varied rotation. He also grazes 800 Romney ewes and 40 Sussex cattle and the farm uses conservation agriculture methods.