Returnables back on the wish list?

7 November 1998


Returnables back on the wish list?

WE KNOW its been said before. But this time, returnable pesticide containers really are on the way.

The big change is that all the major agchem manufacturers are now trying out a new system, using one valve – the Micro Matic – which is common to all. That would allow growers to extract the pesticide using one universal bit of kit, for all brands of product, in a wide range of sizes.

By accepting this valve as the standard within Europe, the agchem industry has at last made returnable containers practicable. Growers dont want lots of different gadgets for accessing these returnable containers bolted on to their sprayer like baubles on a Christmas tree. Just one system is enough.

A hurdle still exists. Distributors arent that keen on setting up collection services for the returnable containers. They would prefer their business to be finished once the product has been dropped off at the farm gate. They dont want to collect the empties – unless they have to. Whats needed is the incentive of a loud and clear demand for returnable services from growers.

The technology has been sorted. The manufacturers are ready and willing. Growers would welcome any system which didnt cost them any more, and would remove the need for pack disposal. Greater speed of pesticide transfer would be a bonus. So why are we waiting? See our supplement, Successful Sprayers and Spreaders, page 8.

Changing tack on rhizomania

ANYONE spotting a suspiciously pale beet patch while harvesting must be sorely tempted to look the other way. Only a saint – or British Sugars Clive Francis – might stop his machine, abandon the crop and shout "unclean"!

The penalties for rhizomania are dire. The destruction of crops isnt the worst blow; thats been softened by the NFUs excellent compensation scheme. Its rather the upheaval to the rotation, and the worry about where the beet quota might safely go in future.

This years outbreak (see page 20) should strike a chill into the hearts of all beet growers. The virus was detected in fields most observers would have classed as clear. It was only picked up because as an outbreak farm last year, Ministry officials crawled over the fields with their fine, MAFF toothcombs.

Just how much rhizomania is sitting, undetected, in crops now being lifted? The virus has appeared in 35 scattered fields at Elveden Farms. The obvious explanation is of virus lying in the soil for many years, only waiting for the right conditions, and a beet crop, to express itself.

Our present policy is to contain the problem by abandoning beet production on infected soil. Outbreak farms are allowed to use rhizomania-tolerant varieties to minimise virus spread. This policy patently hasnt worked at Elveden, which implemented containment last year after the first outbreak.

It is time for a rethink. But designing a replacement policy will be difficult. Theres a strong case for allowing greater use of rhizomania-tolerant varieties to slow disease spread. This seasons experience indicates rhizomania is more widespread than is recognised. Tolerant varieties might give the industry more breathing space.

If the UK were to abandon rhizomania controls altogether, its only a matter of time before the disease would spread. There might be mileage in adapting control policy to region – treating high and low risk areas differently. But there are other considerations. What might such a policy mean for other root crops – seed potatoes, for instance?

Its not going to be easy, but a solution is desperately needed that will minimise the damage to growers incomes. After all, next year it could be you….

Yes Minister, were still here

IT GOES on and on. The list of unanswered questions that need to be put before agriculture ministers at this months Crops Conferences is expanding rapidly.

GM crops – what does the Government really want farmers to do?

Pesticide tax – is it just a ploy to placate public opinion while hitting farmers with costs they cant recoup?

When are we going to see firm Government action which will contribute to a fall in interest rates?

Just exactly how do ministers see modulation – linking aid with environmental action – working in practice?

Is there a never-ending supply of rose-tinted spectacles in Whitehall?

Minister of Agriculture Nick Brown will be at Chilford Halls, Cambridge, on Wednesday November 25 to answer your questions, and his Scottish Office colleague Lord Sewel will take to the platform in Perth on Tuesday November 10.

Premium marketing

TEN years ago, anyone choosing a cereal variety looked first at yield, and then at disease resistance. Times have changed. The critical question is no longer what can this variety do for me? Instead it is: what can this variety do for my customers?

Growing for specific end markets has become the smart way of latching on to premiums. It started, of course, with top grade milling wheats. Then it included lower grade milling, biscuit and export varieties, and specialist varieties for minority baking processes such as chapatis and French-style bread. Now it is the animal feed sector which is becoming more picky (see page 19).

Dalgety leapt in with a premium for feed wheat Buster two years ago, a variety seeming to give poultry producers more for their money. It appears this could be the precursor of a new generation of wheats specially bred to give birds a boost.

Inevitably, there are disadvantages to growing on contract for specific markets. The cost of seed might be one. And what happens when you cant meet the specification?

On the whole the expansion of varieties for specific end markets is good news. It helps growers plan returns, it gives security, and it creates closer links between growers and their customers. Ten years ago, industry pundits were predicting markets would change. And they did. How much further will we go in the next 10 years towards shrinking that heap of open market grain?

ARABLE growers are always being preached at about "sustainability". Its the answer to all our environmental needs as well as providing for efficient long-term food production, say the experts.

But "sustainability" is a glib, slippery concept. It means whatever anyone wants it to mean.

As an example, look at the sad case of the red squirrel. Biologists give it just 12 years before this much-loved creature becomes extinct on mainland England. The cause of its demise is, for once, not the fault of farmers. Instead, its the grey squirrel.

Its fiercely competitive nature, and the fact it carries a virus lethal to the red squirrel has been too much for Squirrel Nutkin to withstand.

Whats the answer? The most obvious one is to eliminate the grey version. But imagine the uproar that a culling programme would cause among the townies who feed the greys in the park at lunchtime. And who should dictate which version – the red or the grey – is the "bad" one anyway?

Clutching at straws, the scientists have proposed a solution of sorts – to create small islands of red squirrel habitat, surrounded by heath which would be, they hope, impenetrable to the grey invaders.

But would this be "sustainable" both economically and environmentally? Or should we let events take their course and surrender to the grey squirrel? Perhaps the answer to the "sustainability" question depends on whether we ask the reds or the greys. And with arable "sustainability", it depends whether we ask the greens or the browns….

HOWs this for a sign of the times? Grade one land in Yorkshire has been offered for at least 16 years for a crop currently worth around £20/t.

The crop? Coppice to fuel the Eggborough power station due on line in November 1999 provided more than 2,000ha of planting can be agreed with Yorkshire farmers.

MAFF presentations to local growers have been attracting full houses at some venues, while the ARBRE Energy fuel supply co-ordinator Barbara Hilton has around 192ha of coppice already in place and a further 250-300ha under negotiation for the coming year.

That still leaves a major shortfall to be addressed – and quickly. Marginal land remains the primary target land type for planting the willow clones, with good location examples including flood plain fields and also some reclaimed gravel workings. However, better land is being offered, including grade 2 and at least one parcel of grade 1 land.

Nor, may it be such a daft idea. With predicted yields of around 12t/ha a year, an index-linked sale price and free planting, maintenance, fencing, harvesting and post-crop tree removal, it begins to compare very favourably with renting the land out to someone else to farm.

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