After Olympics triumph comes harvest disappointment

I hope the world isn’t relying on our farm to sort out the wheat shortage.

I suggested a couple of weeks ago that wheat yields were unlikely to be as good as winter barley. Early harvesting suggests I was more accurate than I wanted to be.

As Britain celebrated the end of a successful London 2012 Olympics, we drove the combine into our first field of wheat. It was early drilled (14 September) Cordiale on light land and moisture levels were about 14%. But try as we might to adjust the combine settings, it was a dirty sample. The pre-cleaner in the barn had never been busier. It was a full-time job clearing the muck away.

Worse still, it yielded less than 6.25t/ha which was, to say the least, disappointing. Yes, it was on our lightest land, but sand should do well in a wet year. However, leaf diseases caused by rain and obviously not controlled by the chemicals applied, and an absence of sun during flowering, had taken their toll and left us with a crop nearly as bad as after last year’s drought.

And we’re not alone in having poor yields. I phoned our grain merchant to check. “Don’t blame me,” he said. “I can’t control the weather.”

He went on to say he’d seen nothing, at that stage, that had yielded more than 7.4t/ha and that bushel weights were as low as 63. But at least he offered an £18/t premium over feed price for the Cordiale and we both hoped bigger yields would follow.

The next two fields we cut before being stopped by rain, one of Diego and one of Grafton, yielded about 9t/ha, so all may not be lost. When we get on to the best land, who knows what we might find? Fingers crossed.

We must be grateful, I suppose, that market values are considerably higher than budget and that it should be possible to make up some of the deficit caused by low yields. But consumers will squeal as their costs rise and I include pig and poultry producers among that number, as well as housewives.

But high grain prices appear to be here to stay for several months at least, if not longer. The only question might be how high? With every broadsheet and tabloid running stories on the US drought and deploring the fact that one-sixth of US maize was virtually destroyed during July, the possibility of yet more price hikes come closer.

Maize isn’t the same as wheat, of course, but at times like this some interchange in use is possible.

The joker in the pack is concern that the US government may divert some or all of the 70m tonnes of maize allocated to ethanol production for motor fuel to human consumption and livestock feed. If that happened, world prices would fall as it would amount to the release of a huge new supply. But the US ethanol lobby is powerful and would not roll over easily. Also, don’t forget, this is a presidential election year in the USA, and Midwest farm votes are crucial for both Democrats and Republicans.

Also, there is a huge speculative market for grain that has proved more profitable for investors than any other commodity over the past few years. Money talks and I can’t imagine that trade being stopped in the present economic climate either.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

Read more from all our Opinion writers

See more