Archive Article: 1997/12/13

13 December 1997

Crops New Year resolution

WARMEST, wettest, windiest – you name it, the weather this season has made the headlines somewhere in the UK. The Met Office statisticians have struggled to keep up. Theres a new record broken during every weather forecast.

Whats 1998 going to bring? Heres the Crops prediction: whatever the pundits say now, no-one will get it right. 1998 will be the year of the unexpected. Everything in farming is now uncertain. The weather, the markets, and the politics. Wise growers will do all they can to prepare for the worst – but without giving up hope on the best. And thats the package within this New Years issue.

First we hope to raise a few smiles this year with the introduction of spoof diarist Justin McDonald (above) – hes brash, broke and born to farm (p30).

As ever, we cover the latest agronomy advice. Warnings are already being given about early disease, lush growth, and unravelling the causes of lodging (see p8). See our Fertiliser Special (p23) for in-depth answers as to what you should be doing this spring.

We cover politics. Is there life after free trade? Certainly, Canadian growers are more than alive and kicking following the dismantling of their subsidised agriculture. The UK should take note (p21)

And we cover marketing. Taking out insurance is a well-recognised way of avoiding risk in day-to-day life. Why not use insurance – otherwise known as options – to smooth out volatile grain markets? (p12)

Our New Years resolution at Crops is to continue to give you the best information that there is, neatly wrapped up in one magazine. What better way to help you tackle whatever lies in store in 1998?

Lessons to learn?

SO YOU thought the new fungicides might make life easier? A one spray answer to cereal disease? Sadly, this doesnt look as if its the case.

The French are usually the first to road test new agchems, and fungicides are no exception. Trial results there show that the strobilurins and other new chemistry work best in complicated mixtures. (p.6). So no simple answers here.

The data presses home the message that growers desperately need more information on how to make the most of the new chemistry when it arrives on farms this spring. Instead, UK growers are working in the dark.

In France, the independent ITCF performs early trials on behalf of growers. And it then disseminates the results fast. Why cant UK growers benefit from a similar system?

The HGCA has the role of commissioning R&D, using growers levy cash to fund trials. There was a time when the HGCA wasnt keen to pay for "near market" research – preferring that growers go to fee-charging organisations such as the ARC or ADAS for the detail on product use.

Thankfully, new thinking at the HGCA is more in tune with growers needs. The lions share of levy cash goes to projects crucial at farm gate level – the UK Recommended List and now a practical assessment of precision farming.

Is it now time for the HGCA to evaluate the new chemistry? It clearly fits the practical direction it is taking. And these products are so different that there will still be plenty of scope for others to make their cut from added-value advice on fine-tuning rates, mixtures and timings.

However, whats desperately needed is basic information. This wouldnt spoil the game for advice providers, but it would mean growers had some early guidelines on the new products.

The UK is a year or so behind France in terms of commercialisation of agchems. And we still lag far behind on freely-available information. With technology racing ahead, the HGCA has an even greater responsibility to give growers more practical, and, above all, truly independent advice.

Challenging days ahead

LETS admit it. Theres nothing more guiltily satisfying than watching the experts scratch their heads. Thats why we couldnt resist the Crops Challenge.

Our two teams battle it out on a Cambridgeshire field; its the practical experience of the independent agronomists, pitted against the scientific expertise of an agrochemical manufacturer.

Their brief – to make the most out of the least. Which team can produce the best wheat gross margin without spending the earth? With markets falling and input prices rising, this is the ideal time to put them to the test.

We promise to spare none of the details of their angst and their agony through the season. Seeing the experts themselves bravely struggle with the task you face every year, may go a little way to taking your mind off the size of the bills this spring (p16).

Unpalatable facts on sewage sludge

ADOPTING environmental ideals is often more difficult than it may seem. Thats because whats laudably green to one sector of the industry can signal red for danger when seen from another viewpoint.

Using sewage sludge as a fertiliser seems to be an answer to the pollution problem in the seas around the UK. And we need an answer, fast. EU legislation will ban dumping waste at sea by the end of 1998.

What could be more green than recycling the nutrients in our waste, and saving on bag fertiliser? Wouldnt this be in line with the much-paraded environmental credentials of our major retailers?

But now its come to the point, the supermarkets are not in favour. They are not convinced that shoppers would be keen to buy food – particularly unprocessed fruit and vegetables – after treatment with human sewage. No matter all the science that has gone into transforming waste into an unrecognisable and safe form of fertiliser.

Sewage is sewage – and in the publics eye, that means germs, e-coli, and hazards to health.

So within the supermarkets own quality assurance schemes, sewage sludge is likely to be ruled out. This puts a question mark over its acceptability within the new Assured Combinable Crops Scheme.

Given the power of the supermarkets, the widespread use of sewage sludge as fertiliser looks unlikely.

Its bad news for anyone keen to see the UK clean up its act on sea pollution. But for green seas, the public needs to accept the fact that human sewage can be a useful, and safe, fertiliser. Is that really so unpalatable?

Brown rot in the river?

ONLY the most hard-hearted UK potato growers could fail to have sympathy for their Dutch counterparts. Three years on from first finding brown rot in Holland, this disease continues to cause problems for Dutch seed producers.

Much like unwelcome in-laws at Christmas, brown rot lingers on – and on. Once its found a home in a region, it will live happily within native weeds in water courses. Then as soon as water is taken for potato irrigation, bingo. Brown rot spreads rapidly, ruining tuber quality and wiping out seed export prospects.

The warning bells are now sounding in the UK. Infected bittersweet, a weed found along river banks, has been picked up bordering the River Ouse. The mystery of how brown rot arrived in the first instance will, no doubt, never be satisfactorily resolved – but the finger of suspicion points at potato processing plants.

For UK potato producers, the important point is that it is here, and it may contaminate irrigation water. The authorities insist that they have cleaned up the river in question – how can we be sure this is the case? And how many other river banks may be harbouring infected flora?

A new European directive on brown rot control is expected this year, which will encompass irrigation. But it is already way overdue, delayed by arguments on testing protocol. Meanwhile, UK policy is in limbo.

We cant afford to wait until it is too late. The industry needs a plan of action, now. River irrigation is critical to the quality of many UK crops – the prospect of sprinkling contaminated water on to good potato land this summer is one too dangerous to contemplate.

Hybrids -here at last?

PUT yourself into the shoes of a plant breeder. Whats the best way to protect profits being eroded by farm-saved seed? Answer: sell something that no-one can grow on for a second year.

Thats why hybrids are the seed companies Holy Grail. But to persuade canny growers to buy expensive seed that can be used only once is not easy. Hybrids need to offer something extra in return.

With rape, the breeders can make that promise. Hybrid yields are high enough to give varieties a marketing edge. Not so with cereals; hybrid wheats have never lived up to the hype.

The breeders have tried hard. But as fast as they have come up with a wheat hybrid, new high yielding conventional varieties have overtaken potential hybrid yield advantages.

But now some seed companies reckon wheat hybrids are really on the horizon. The key to commercial success lies in a breadmaking premium, 7% higher yield, cheaper seed production methods (and so cheaper hybrid seed) and more consistent quality.

So the breeders argue. But after failing to live up to the hype for so many seasons, hybrid wheats have a serious image problem. Can growers be persuaded to change their minds? A new breadmaking hybrid variety will arrive in the UK soon. On your behalf, well be keeping an independent eye on it.

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