Exports were once the poor relation of the grain market – a last resort for wheat or barley that couldn’t find a domestic buyer. Nowadays, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In a year when the UK has a grain surplus, exports support the entire market, often offering a premium price to secure the required grain quality.
Barley exports have progressed extremely well this season, and although wheat exports have had a sluggish start, the pace is beginning to pick up, according to HGCA analyst Brenda Mullen.
She added that the strong pound against the euro had made sales to the EU challenging this year – but the weak pound against the dollar had opened up new third country opportunities.
This currency fluctuation, combined with a changing global market place, has altered UK trade patterns, said David Doyle, export manager at farming co-operative Openfield.
In 2012, Openfield loaded 500,000t of wheat, barley and oilseed rape through Portbury Docks just west of Bristol, most of which was wheat destined for Ireland and Iberia.
This year, 446,000t was loaded by the end of March, with barley destined for Japan and Saudi Arabia, milling wheat heading to North Africa, and feed wheat to Asia.
The Bristol Port Company in figures
The privately owned site of just over 1,000ha comprises Portbury and Avonmouth ports, where agricultural goods account for 13% of turnover at 1.2m tonnes.
It recently invested £2m in new grain silos, giving a combined storage of 250,000t.
The port can process 20 grain lorries an hour, including independent grain sampling. It can load ships at up to 1,000t of grain an hour and discharge at up to 2,400t/hr.
“Cheap maize has been replacing feed wheat in Ireland and the EU over the past few campaigns, so the UK needs to price grain into alternative markets including outside the EU,” said Mr Doyle.
This year the issue is compounded by the French having more feed wheat than normal, so opportunistic business has been really important.
“Having a large-capacity port like Portbury makes a huge difference in a year like this,” added Mr Doyle.
The port is only one of a few in the UK that can take Panamax vessels capable of carrying up to 60,000t, and is the largest single grain consumer in south-west England.
This has enabled grain in the Portbury hinterland to carry a significant premium to other areas of the UK without a deep water port.
However, to make the most of emerging markets, producers had to grow the best-quality grain possible, he warned.
“Corn is unlikely to go away as a cheap feed source. The better-quality grain you grow, the more opportunities for value-added exports there are. If all we have is feed wheat, we will be competing on price alone,” said Mr Doyle.
Being able to load lorries on time was also critically important, as from the end of January to the end of March, some 265,000t of grain went through Portbury – that’s about 6,000t a day.
This puts a lot of strain on road haulage, so co-operation between the farm, store, haulier and export facility is vital.
Sarah Mann, HGCA exports manager, said British Cereal Exports was working hard to open up new markets for the coming season, by hosting visits from overseas delegates and securing new agreements for exports to China.
“There are only six countries on China’s approved barley list – but over the past two years UK barley would have been competitive into China so it is a market we need access to,” she said.
With the EU three-crop rule, the UK could have an even bigger barley crop, so it’s important to be working on new destinations, Mrs Mann added.
Traditionally, hard milling wheats (group one and two varieties) went to North Africa, with soft wheats (group three varieties) going to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, she added.
All the speakers were attending a recent HGCA Meet the Exporter day at Portbury Docks.