OPINION: I’ll keep my straw, thank you very much

I was baffled by the recent letter from a well-established straw merchant (Letters, 16 August), accusing us arable farmers of having an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude to our straw – it was proving too expensive for livestock farms to purchase.

He seemed mighty cross that we were failing to send every stalk of what he astonishingly calls ‘waste straw’ to dealers, for them to send on to the livestock boys.

Well, I’m just approaching the end of my 30th harvest, and I confess I’m a bigger fan that ever of chopping my straw back into the soil. Let me explain why.

I’m a bigger fan than ever of chopping my straw back into the soil

When the straw chopper is in action, the harvest job is done as soon as the combine has left the field. True, I’m using more diesel, but I’m returning nutrients and organic matter to the soil, and the cultivations can start at once. We’re no longer clearing the straw simply to help the plough, now that we’re rather belatedly gone min-till. Chop’n’go – that’s my motto.

I do leave some for the baler – we’re a mixed farm, after all – but as soon as a long swath of unchopped straw is formed across the field, the tension starts to rise. When will that baler get here? If I do sell my straw, it’s to people I know will be there promptly. There’s a local contractor who runs a couple of huge balers, and a dairy farmer who I swear sleeps in my hedges during harvest; an aged tractor/baler combo will be visible in my mirrors before I’ve reached the end of the first turn of the day. An arable farmer’s vision of heaven. I’m happy to swath for them.

Hell is a contractor who promises well but delivers badly. Hell is “Yup, I’ll be right behind the combine”, but you find yourself with a couple of hundred acres of lying straw – perhaps on fields that should be sown with oilseed rape. Hell is that straw getting wet, and then the field getting a hammering from multiple passes as the straw is turned.

Even a successful bale and stack operation can turn into a nightmare. Twice we sold our precious barley straw to dealers via an auction. The first time it went to a dealer who genuinely thought that we sat all day doing nothing but wait for his lorries. If we got any notice at all, it would be a couple of hours. The second time, we fell victim to “hand sitting” – one dealer queried the catalogue description, a mass non-bid took place, and another dealer helpfully bought at the reserve price. I also have bitter experience of cheques bouncing after the straw has left the farm and all the associated unpleasantness. That’s why straw dealers tend to be as popular on this farm as a wasp in a dust mask.

Of course I’m happy to sell my straw – and thereby help out my fellow livestock farmers – but to people I know and trust, and at a price that reflects the value of the straw. We’re as keen to sell it for less than it’s worth as dealers and livestock farmers are to pay more than it’s worth. In other words – not keen at all.

So if the price is right, and I can be confident of a baler arriving in the field promptly, then I’ll be delighted to swath and sell my straw. Otherwise, my huge chopper rules.

Charlie Flindt is a tenant of the National Trust, farming 380ha at Hinton Ampner, in Hampshire.

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