17 October 1998


Lightening up the economic gloom

NO DOUBT about it – times are as hard as theyve ever been. Two years ago, the profit on an acre of arable land was something like £160, according to Northants-based land agents Samuel Rose. Their calculations say this has shrunk to a frightening £10/acre this season.

Certainly arable businesses are in the doldrums. But the industry should realise that hopeful signs are beginning to emerge from the gloom.

First, grain prices. We reported in our last issue Dalgetys optimism on future markets. That is backed by the economists at the HGCA, who at a recent conference took the plunge and made uncharacteristic predictions on prices (see page 28). Although they hedged the forecasts around with health warnings, the message is of a £10/t rise by next harvest, and a £5/t increase for the year after.

Second, interest rates. The UK has been out on a limb for a long time. In Germany, the rate is 3.3%, in the US 5%, in Japan 0.5%. Meanwhile weve suffered under the straitjacket of 7.5% – an extraordinary situation given the relative lack of inflationary pressure in the UK economy. The 0.25% fall announced by the Bank of England is welcome news. If the UK is ever to come in line with its European partners on the euro, we must go much further still. But this is a step in the right direction.

Third, the pound is weakening. Last week the green pound was devalued by 1.72%, which means an increase in many agricultural support prices by 1.75%. It will also help exporters.

These are all positive financial signals for arable businesses. Their message is that things will get better – we just dont know exactly when.

Organics all boxed off

AT A time when milkmen have become a rare species, and the bread van is consigned to history, it may come as a surprise to hear of the success of a new doorstep delivery service.

Organic vegetable boxes, dropped off at households once a week, have been adopted by many organic producers and suppliers as the most effective means of marketing their produce.

Perhaps the surprise is part of the fun, particularly for London households out of touch with whats happening in the fields.

Can this initiative last – or is it a short term novelty? In spite of recent publicity, supermarket backing and Government support, organic production still makes up just 1% of production.

At this low level, box distribution to enthusiast buyers seems to make sense. But if organic shoppers were able to buy just what they wanted, when, and at the right price from their local supermarket, then box deliveries with their random contents might not appear as attractive.

Distribution and marketing is a key problem for organic producers, as our feature on Guy Watsons £1.5m business explores (page 26). But its been a hurdle for conventional vegetable producers too. Eventually, they had to invest in packhouses to satisfy their supermarket customers. The big buyers need the security of knowing they can source quality product, in high volumes from one supplier.

The odds are that as they grow larger, organic producers will be forced down the same road, if they want to "deal with the devil" and sell to supermarkets. But where would that leave box deliveries? Back on the shelf, perhaps?

Rhizomania on the march

EIGHT new cases of the sugar beet disease rhizomania have been confirmed this year, including serious outbreaks on Elveden Estates, Norfolk. This adds about another 1,000ha to the previous total infected area of 2,800ha.

But this seasons score isnt quite as bad as the experts were anticipating. In their trial plots, rhizomania had gone on the rampage following the warm spell in late May. So the worry was that the disease was going to be far worse than it actually transpired.

More troubling for growers is the fact that the partially resistant variety Ballerina doesnt seem to be holding out as well as expected. It is widely grown elsewhere in Europe, but doesnt appear to be as resistant on British light sandy soil. (See Letter to the Editor, page 46)

There are two other resistant varieties – Rosana and Rebecca – further back in the NIAB pipeline. Resistant varieties actually slow down the rate of disease expansion, they dont just mask its effects. So anyone who suspects they may be heading for problems would be well advised to use resistant types to gain a little extra breathing space. The industry desperately needs new resistant varieties – this should be taken into account as decisions are made on next years Recommended List.

&#8226 As host of the BEET UK harvesting demonstration on Wednesday 21 October at Aubourn Farming, Lincolnshire, grower Philip Wynn is understandably nervous of disease contamination. All visitors are being asked to arrive in clean vehicles without mud attached, and clean boots will be the order of the day. Rhizomania apart, anyone who finds suspect root rots in beet now being harvested should bring samples along for inspection at the plant clinic run by IACR Brooms Barn at BEET UK.

IT takes a hard man with a cast iron stomach to promote the cause of UK malting barley in China. Step forward Balclay Follest who joined Tony Blair on his recent trade visit to the Far East.

A veteran of more than one encounter with roasted scorpion, snake bile, and unidentified brains of furry creatures, Borders grower Barclay will be taking the chair at the more conventionally-catered Crops Scottish Conference in Perth on 10 November. If you want to catch up on the latest prospects for malting barley, Scottish Natural Heritages Battleby Centre is the place to be.

Not least for tales of Barclays culinary exploits but also to hear another China hand, John Calder of the Scottish Export Company, report on his perception of this and other markets.

With hints of a small recovery in cereal prices next year and opportunities for potato growers, the mood in Perth is set to be one of determined optimism from speakers whose livelihood is just as bound up in the fortunes of the agricultural industry as that of growers.

See page 10 for more details.

Scottish Agronomys Huw Phillips will outline the cost benefits of new technology including chemistry, varieties and precision farming.

Agronomist David Hudson, of Sutton Bridge Ltd, will detail the factors that will make Scottish seed potatoes first choice for English ware growers.

Welcome aboard…

LATEST recruit to the Crops technical writing team is Liverpool University plant science graduate Lucy Stephenson who has just completed an MSc in farm and rural business management at the Scottish Agricultural College and Aberdeen University.

An accomplished hedgelayer, Lucy is also Crops resident expert on bananas, button squash and zucchini, having worked on organic and fruit farms in Australia. She replaces Tia Rund who will be writing in future for a wider audience from an East Anglian base.

…and on to pastures new

ITS been a privilege in this job to see so many farms close up, writes Tia Rund.

Never have I been more conscious of that than the day I visited the Manydown Companys LEAF demonstration farm in Hampshire.

Harvest was in full flight and farm director Richard Stirling was up to his ears, but couldnt have been more accommodating. As we toured the estate, between acting as relief on one of the combines, I was impressed by integrated crop management in action.

That day came back when I saw him again this month at the launch of the MAFF-sponsored report Restoring Confidence in Farming – the role of integrated systems.

He spoke again about conservation headlands and beetle banks and soil structure and all the things that go to make up ICM, or integrated farm management as he prefers to call it. He spoke of ICM as a way to put skill, craft and pride back into agriculture.

But he also spoke of the opportunities he creates to demonstrate ICM – to other growers curious about LEAF, to school parties, to customers of Manydowns farm shop and, of course, to nosy journalists.

There are two sets of people who need their confidence in farming restored – farmers, and their customers. MAFFs report may go some way to convince the former that they neednt lose out on efficiency or profit by adopting an environmental approach.

What about the rest of the population? If communication is the key, its the media thats capable of turning the lock. And whos job is it to convince them? Not the NFU, according to its representative at the same conference.

So who does that leave? Richard Stirling, fortunately.

And you.

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