Top of the Crops: 30 years of Crops magazine

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Farmers Weekly‘s sister magazine, Crops. Isabel Davies peeks into the archives to look at some of the magazine’s highlights – and discover how we reported some of the big issues affecting growers over the past few decades.

1980s

1980s-crops-covers1

Crops magazine started life on 6 June 1984 – just a few weeks before arable farmers were to experience a bumper harvest that is still used as a reference point today.

The first issue, which had more of a newspaper format, was sent out to 10,000 growers, promising a good mix of news, business and market intelligence, which “will be required reading for all cereals growers”.

Farmers often reflect on 1984 as a golden year – and the record yields they saw that summer certainly gave them something to smile about. Yet the first issue of Crops also reflects the uncertainties of the day. A new code of practice for stubble burning had just been introduced and there were warnings that anyone breaking the rules could face prison and bankruptcy.

To help farmers get to grips with the new regulations the magazine produced a quiz that took people through the details. Alternative options were also examined with an article extolling the virtues of chopping and incorporating straw.

Bumper yields were not without their problems, either. Anyone under 30 years of age probably finds the concept of intervention storage a bit of a mystery. But from the moment the UK joined the EU and signed up to the Common Agricultural Policy (or EEC as it was then known) intervention became a crucial plank in the grain market.

“British grain is literally pouring into intervention as the record crop, declining prices and the national dock strike take their toll,” we reported in our second issue in September 1984, when we started weekly production of the magazine. Just a month later there were reports that the intervention stores at the port of Felixstowe were full up.

It was an uncomfortable moment for the farming industry, which was looking at EEC grain stores bulging with surpluses, while on the television, newsreels showed Ethiopians dying of malnutrition.

Cambridgeshire farmer Oliver Walston won our praise for seeking to “prick the consciences of his fellow grain barons” with his Send a Tonne to Africa campaign.

Although the campaign was a little slow to take off, once the first load left UK shores it started to gain momentum. By the time the appeal ended a year later, British farmers had shipped 12,000t of wheat to Ethiopia to help with the famine relief effort.

1990s

1990s-Crops-covers1

It was all change in 1991 when Crops shrank to a smaller, glossy magazine. It was all change for growers, too, as they tried to get their heads around a radical set of CAP reforms that would see the introduction of a 15% set-aside rate, a cut in intervention prices and the introduction of area payments.

For the first time, farmers were going to be paid according to the acreage of each crop type they grew and it did not matter how many tonnes they produced. Columnist Marie Skinner wrote: “As I ponder the future I realise that my whole attitude to farming must change. Why strive for maximum production, if it is not profitable? Why innovate, if it costs money? Why try to farm the land well, if the most cost-effective production system is low inputs and low output?”

Efficiency and cost control were certainly the buzzwords by the late 1990s. With wheat prices down to a misery-inducing £70/t, farmers were now exposed to the realities of a volatile global market and it was causing plenty of pain. With returns lower than they had been for almost 30 years, it was not surprising that the announcement of the new Assured Combinable Crops Scheme in 1997 left many farmers feeling cold. Who wants to take on extra costs when the pips are being squeezed so tightly?

But Crops pinned its colours to the mast and urged growers to get behind the scheme. “We believe that having quality assurance for arable crops is inevitable. Having an industry-designed scheme up and running is surely better than being forced to accept one imposed from without.” Within 12 months 5,000 growers had signed up, beating the target of 4,000 in the first year.

The introduction of set-aside in the 1990s caused people to re-evaluate their approach.

2000s

2000s Crops

Farmers had been getting increasingly “greener” over the previous couple of decades, but there was a renewed focus on environmental stewardship in the new millennium, with the introduction of both the entry and higher level stewardship schemes.

Farming to improve habitats and wildlife was a major topic during the decade, with Crops playing a key role in getting information out to growers about the pros and cons of each of the schemes and offering practical tips on how to go about applying.

Farmers’ views were, on the whole, positive. Once they understood the points requirements needed to be eligible and endured the nightmare of getting maps agreed, the consensus seemed to be that the schemes were well worth doing. Many found themselves filled with an enthusiasm for habitat creation that left them feeling a bit shocked.

An article from August 2006 quoted farm manager Robert Kilby as being surprised by his growing interest in the environmental aspects of the farm as a result of entering HLS. “I’m a commercial farm manager,” he said. “But the benefits of HLS to the environment, habitats and financially are great. I get a buzz out of it now – I certainly wouldn’t have said that two years ago.”

To head off the threat of compulsory environmental set-aside, in 2009 the Campaign for the Farmed Environment was introduced. This asked farmers to “demonstrate how profitable farm businesses can work alongside looking after the environment”.

Changes on the rules on stubble burning were a big topic in early issues.

2010s

 2010s-Crops-cover2

We’re not even halfway through the 2010s, so it is hard to know what its defining moment will be. But few growers will be able to forget the summer of 2012. It started with real promise – with prices at very appealing levels – but then the rain started and forgot that it was meant to stop.

Random Crops facts

  • The average spot price for UK feed wheat in the first issue of Crops was £126.60/t
  • The top table at the 2001 Crop’s conference featured a 6ft cardboard cutout of Defra secretary Margaret Beckett, rather than the lady herself, after she refused to attend.
  • The current arable editor of Farmers Weekly, David Jones, was part of the team that launched Crops.

The wettest summer in 100 years, combined with a lack of sunshine, resulted in very high disease pressures and extremely poor grain fill. Of course, the appalling weather meant that not only did crops fail to reach their potential, the next one was also difficult to get in.

Prices did remain strong, which was a saving grace for many growers. Even so, it was a year we summed up as “Grain grief”.

The voice of Crops

East Sussex farmer Stephen Carr has been a regular Crops contributor for well over 20 years.

His ability to inject humour into his writing means that he can leave you laughing, even when you feel like crying.

A classic example is this extract from a column penned in 2006 – a time when the world was on high alert for signs of avian flu, and when the industry was feeling particular disillusioned by the attitude of then Defra secretary Margaret Beckett.

“Reports that agrarian flu has struck Britain have been confirmed. Agrarian flu is a distressing condition that, as the name suggests, infects farmers with an irrational wish to produce food even they know they will lose money in the process.

“Reports have been circulating in the media for several days that some farmers are infected, and shocked government ministers called a press conference to announce official findings.

“A visibly distressed Margaret Beckett said: ‘The government has done everything in its power to prevent an agrarian flu outbreak. It is most distressing to think that there are still farmers out there who think it is worth producing something’.

“She went on to say the government would now redouble its efforts to stamp out this terrible affliction by introducing new measures like stricter cross-compliance and bigger fines where food production contravenes environmental standards.”

See more