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Farmers are optimistic, but...

Farmers are optimistic, but...
David Richardson
Saturday 05 January 2013

It's only a date on a calendar, but who doesn't regard the changing of the year as a chance for a fresh start; to hope the problems of the previous twelve months can be left behind and that the new year will be trouble-free?

And the prevailing mood among farmers should, on the face of it, be one of optimism. That, anyway, is the popular perception among many.

After all, combinable crop values are at an all-time high. Quality potatoes are making good prices, mainly because they too are in short supply. And even sugar beet looks like it's being dragged up from inadequate levels as monopoly buyer British Sugar realises production will drop if it doesn't respond to market pressures created by alternative crops.

Having been in the doldrums on and off for years, pig prices have increased closer to viable levels, despite the high cost of feed. Beef cattle are enjoying an excellent run and although lambs have come off the top, they've had a good year. Even milk prices are beginning to improve as supply shortages bite, to the extent that a few big producers are selling at spot values each month without a contract.

This buoyancy in livestock products has been brought about by production cutbacks driven by lack of profit. The processors and retailers responsible for lower production through their reluctance to pay fair prices to suppliers are scouring markets for dearer alternatives but deserve no sympathy from farmers forced to down-size or exit some sectors.

Meanwhile, there's growing evidence farmers are gaining the confidence of domestic consumers. And Owen Paterson, the outspoken new boss at DEFRA, has given new legs to the GM debate, which could result in significant benefits to our industry (and consumers) earlier than anticipated.

But, and it's a big but, short-term arable prospects look rather different.

The 2012 grain harvest left a hole in cashflows that will be difficult and take time to fill. Yes, I am aware from others who have travelled around the country more than I recently, that here in Norfolk we've had less rain and are better off than most. But many in the East suffered disastrous yields in 2011 as well, let me remind you, so we've had a double whammy to cope with.

And the widespread floods since harvest have simply compounded the problems. I hear stories of farms all over the UK where only a small fraction of the planned autumn drilling has been completed and on many, including this one, where a significant proportion of that work will have to be written off. Much rape, in particular, has failed to emerge and plant counts are insufficient to leave in the expectation of a viable crop. That work and those inputs will all be lost. And I'm still not sure what spring seed will be available to plant in its place.

On this farm, as I write, we have lakes on drilled fields killing off the wheat beneath and reducing the potential for next harvest. We have sugar beet sitting in land too wet to lift, let alone drill with more wheat after lifting as originally planned. The damage we'll do to that land when/if we get a chance to harvest will take years to recover. We'll be suffering from this awful spell of weather for a long time. And while I would like to say I'm ebullient because of the first half of this column, the second half makes me apprehensive.

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