OPINION: Upbeat talk doesn’t reflect the reality

Our local weather forecasting service is based a few miles from here, and one harvest, a few years ago, I telephoned them to enquire when conditions might be good enough for me to start combining

 It was dull and drizzly over the farm at the time. “Oh,” the forecaster said brightly, “it’s a lovely day for harvesting. If I were you, I’d get out on the combine right now.”

I retorted that he should try looking out of the window before he said such things. He replied that although it was drizzling, the weather was about to improve. He clearly had no understanding that it takes a while for a grain crop to dry enough to be cut after rain stops.

I feel a bit like I felt then when I hear commentators tell of the exciting times we farmers are enjoying and the untold wealth it is implied we are generating. I feel like shouting – look out of the window!

Look at the way most input costs are holding up; look at the volatility of commodity values which, at their lowest, are below costs; look at the desperate economic state of farms in some areas caused by two or three years of extreme weather; look at the rising level of industry borrowing forced on farmers to stay afloat.

For owner-occupiers, that borrowing may not be too difficult because the increasing value of land provides security for lenders. The bullish tendency of commentators is obviously persuading some investors of “jam tomorrow” and they are getting in ahead of the herd.

For tenants, borrowing must be hard if not impossible. But for all, there’s the challenge of repaying loans and the probability of higher interest rates within months rather than years.

Yet the forecasters are probably right. All the signs suggest worldwide food will become scarce and that the laws of supply and demand will force up prices. In other words, the sun will start shining and allow farmers to reap rewards. But only those with practical knowledge of agriculture appreciate that, in this industry, transition from poor profits to prosperity takes time.

The questions bugging more UK farmers than many government advisers would like to admit are how do we get from where we are now to that “promised land”, when will we arrive and what can we do to survive in the meantime?

Some things are clearly outside our control; notably the weather. And that applies whether or not the freak conditions we’ve experienced recently are due to climate change. Forecasters are now confidently predicting more of the same – in other words, more wet and cold winters and dry summers.

Not, I need hardly add, the best recipe for high-yielding crops or for optimising production from grazing livestock. So we could be facing a continuation of static production and incomes.

But other key factors necessary for viability and for the increases in production that all agree are needed can – or should – be controllable. But politicians, particularly those who rule the EU, who have the ability to remove restrictive regulations, promote production, increase research and services, and ensure all competition is fair, seem only motivated to cling to power – and as a result pander to pressure groups.

A couple of weeks ago, I drew attention to the failure of the UAE to properly address that country’s water shortage. But is the EU’s failure to anticipate our coming food shortage and change policies accordingly so very different? I think not.

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

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