Flindt on Friday: Soil doom-mongers v hard harvest facts

Sometimes the most significant stuff pops up in the most unlikely of places.

For instance, you’d hardly think that a Defra publication from December last year called Farming Statistics: Final crop areas, yields, livestock populations and agricultural workforce at June 2019 – United Kingdom would cause a frenzy of excitement.  

It’s hardly the latest Harry Potter, Harold Robbins or yet another of the Fifty Shades series – although I suppose it does detail the results of a damn good thrashing.

See also: Read more from Charlie Flindt

But for those of us who are into that sort of thing (analysing harvest yields, not a damn good thrashing) it contained some very important statistics, and all helpfully and neatly laid out in a graph – it’s on page five of the PDF. It shows yields of wheat, barley and oats over 20 harvests.

The message is simple. Over two decades, yields have been creeping up nicely, then dipping for two harvests before surging back up to a new high last harvest.

It backs up exactly what I, and many other farmers, saw from the combine cab, and explains the initial and inevitable drop in prices just after harvest.

Harvest hoo-ha

What’s the significance – why is it so exciting? Well, it is me to me, anyway. You see, when I’m not arguing with vegans online, I’m arguing with “soil catastrophists”.

They are a very vocal brand of eco-warriors, and they spend their time bashing modern farming on the rather dubious claim that we spend our time destroying the very thing that makes our farming possible: our soil.

You’ll recognise their arguments: the soil is being washed away at an alarming rate, the soil has been rendered toxic or sterile by years of industrial farming, to the extent that only pouring on more chemicals will give a crop, and as a result, we only have five (or is it 10, or is it 15?) harvests left.

Making a positive counter-argument for modern chemical farming is easy, but it falls on deaf ears.

Somehow, having 36 years of hands-on farming experience and a respectable Agricultural Engineering degree (which included some proper technical soil science taught by proper, if barking mad, soil scientists) is trumped by reading The Guardian, watching Countryfile, and harvesting echo-chamber opinions at SW1 twatterati dinner parties.

Back to earth 

I invite them out to my farm – all the soil is where it was when we arrived 60 years ago.

I try and tell them about Liebig’s Law – you don’t get good yields from poor soil, no matter what extra chemicals you “pour” on.

And I try telling them that we do indeed test, nurture, protect and cherish our soils, and they are actually in very good health.

And the “5/10/15 harvests left” prediction will be as accurate as the others eco-scares that get ceremonially ridiculed every “Earth Day”.

But the catastrophists will never take the word of a “chemical junkie farmer”.

Well, thank goodness for Defra (and there’s a phrase I never thought I’d use), and its factual and unemotional analysis of the state of UK arable farming, written and illustrated in the clearest and simplest terms.

Yields are on the up, and have been for two decades. We are looking after our soils.

Having said all that, there is a fourth line on the Defra graph: it shows the oilseed rape yield, and it bucked the trend quite dramatically last year.  

There’s a wonderful irony there; a crop’s yield has plunged after farmers were forced to stop using a key chemical following active and vociferous green campaigning.

Good thing Defra is too diplomatic to point that out.