Archive Article: 1997/07/19

19 July 1997




Dampened hopes for harvest

THEYRE off. The combines are now going through the first rape and barley fields.

However, following the wettest June since records began, its not going to be plain sailing in harvest 97. One major problem – lodging – is now horribly apparent in many cereals. But the side-effects on sprouting and quality wont be known until later.

Due to the run of hot summers, theres a worrying lack of data on the sprouting resistance of some new wheats. Unless the showers stop soon, this could be the harvest when we learn the painful truth.

Some clues can be gleaned from Scotland, where the late summer is more often damp, than not. Of the newer names, Charger appears to sprout rapidly in wet conditions.

This is particularly bad news, given that this variety is deemed suited for the quality market. A wet summer would also worry those growing Rialto, given its chequered history of somewhat variable hagbergs.

According to NIABs admittedly limited data, the wheats to watch on sprouting will be Charger, and indeed any wheat destined for the milling market, as well as Encore, Equinox and Hunter.

These should take priority if the weather remains unsettled, although if aiming for the feed market, then quality is less of an issue. Reaper appears to have relatively good sprouting resistance, and so, could risk being put further back in the harvest queue.

If quality is poor this season, the UK could be left with an embarrassingly large heap of feed wheat – and too few buyers. This prospect is already carrying the market down to new lows. Lets hope the sun returns to save the day.

Swallowing the GMO line

DONT panic, but theyve landed – and theyre sitting on a supermarket shelf near you. GMOs – or Genetically Modified Organisms – are now being sold in the UK as part of many processed food products.

The first modified soya came into Europe last Christmas, indistinguishably mixed in with conventional soya shipments.

Were not talking large volumes – at the moment, only 2% of imported soya might contain GMO material – but this could rise significantly next winter as plantings increase in the US.

Because soya finds its way into about 60% of our food products, most of us are now eating it in some form – as confectionary, biscuits, pies, in meat products, tinned soups – the list is endless.

So far, consumer reaction to the arrival of GMOs in food has been relaxed. There has been little fuss and no supermarkets have been boycotted.

But heres the painful irony: although were now swallowing GMO products at mealtimes, UK growers still arent allowed to grow transgenic varieties commercially. No GMO varieties have been given full marketing clearance by the EU.

Under contract, a small area of transgenics have been planted in the UK, but these are for specific uses, and have to be grown under strict regulation. Herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape is coming closer to the mainstream UK market, but before these varieties can hope to be commercially viable, the crushers and the consumers must agree to accept the resulting oil. And as yet the oil processors have not given transgenics the green light.

Europe must resolve its national differences and sort out this paradoxical position on GMOs – otherwise the US will corner all the benefits from biotechnology while were still dithering.

Set-aside –

give it five

SO set-aside is going to be 5% – same as last year. Its rather unexciting news, given that in the past 12 months the pundits have been predicting anything from zero to 25%.

Forecasts have see-sawed wildly, depending on the recent headlines about world grain supplies, or EU political manoeuvres.

By comparison, fixing set-aside once again at 5% seems a half-hearted measure. In practical terms, its as near as the Commission seems to be able to come to abolishing set-aside, but without taking that final leap. Why dont they bite the bullet, put an end to the annual uncertainty about set-aside rates and finish off this strategy for good?

If EU Commission president Jacques Santers new proposals for the next stage in the reform of the CAP are accepted, then European agriculture will be taken further down the route towards free world markets and direct aid, rather than production subsidies.

This makes set-aside look increasingly redundant. The US has jettisoned this strategy as a production control tool. Logically, Europe should be next to take the plunge.

Mountains

for climbing

ITS one of those apposite remarks which sums up all our feelings about the Assured Combinable Crops scheme – "Dont make the Himalayas any higher".

Those words from David Cranstoun were spoken after he had taken a first long look at the proposed QA scheme for England and Wales. As one of the prime movers behind Scottish Quality Cereals, he well knows the importance of making any new project grower-friendly.

And, with a target of 5,000 members for its first year of operation, Assured Combinable Crops Scheme needs to be extremely grower-friendly.

The Scottish verdict on the draft requirements? On the surface too complicated and too demanding.

Of course, the requirements are meritorious but the schemes supporters need to be realistic about what new members finding their feet in QA will be able to achieve in the first 12 months.

The contract to supply the independent assessors is out to tender. A prime part of the brief for the assessors must be to combine strictness with common sense and practicality when they randomly check members farms.

Supermarket

cash n carry

The new British Potato Council is born. Its first pledge – to woo the supermarkets is absolutely critical. What a pity it could not have persuaded the retailers to come on board from the start.

Clearly co-operation between the majors is a thorny issue; the big names seem to want to retain an individual edge.

With the supermarkets now selling a huge proportion of fresh potatoes – 60% – their absence on the trade seats on the new Council leaves a gaping void.

Like it or lump it, producers have to dance to the tune of the supermarkets these days. Producer protocols and ICM show that potato growers have been willing to do whats needed to secure their markets. Its galling for them to see potatoes in fancy packaging on sale for up to ten times that of their standard retail value.

Its a shame that some of this extra cash cannot find its way back on to the farm; wouldnt it be nice if growers were truly rewarded for their share of the effort?

Perhaps some of these wounds could be healed by supermarket involvement on the new body. Afterall, the retailers are always talking about partnership – lets see it in action.

Spray price battleground?

WHAT will the market – in the shape of the UK cereal grower – bear? Its a key question exercising the main producers of fungicides.

Next spring, the catalogue of major league fungicides will be much expanded with a wealth of powerful products based on new and even newer chemistry vying for market share.

Notwithstanding the excellent performance of the new strobilurin protectant chemistry this season in trials, there are equally good results still being reported from recently-introduced triazoles.

So will the strobilurins produce the great leap forward in control the makers would have the cereal grower believe?

Theyre good, but so are other cheaper combinations. On top of that, the strength of the pound has meant entrepreneurial merchants have been scurrying across the Channel to bring in fungicide, mostly from Belgium.

Already, rumours are flying around to the effect that premiums demanded this season for strobilurins cant be maintained, and recent triazole introductions are also likely to come down in price.

Spray price wars would be good news for growers. The makers can argue that they need decent returns to underpin their investment in research and new technology. They deserve sympathy – of sorts – provided they remember their customers live in the real world of contracting cereal end prices.

It is those products – new or old – delivering the greatest profitability which deservedly succeed.

At £80/t for wheat, it behoves the expensive spray programme to supply at least 0.5t/ha over older, cheaper materials also providing perfectly adequate disease control.

And many growers are awaiting with interest the confirmation from this harvest that, thanks to greening and longer grain filling, the strobilurins can increase yield in the absence of disease.

Without that evidence few may feel motivated to abandon familiar chemistry, other than out of curiosity, unless those can prices are radically overhauled.


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