Having left Perth with the thermometer on 43 centigrade and Australians sheltering in anything air conditioned, moaning about the temperature and bush fires raging just south of the Perth suburbs, arriving at Heathrow to -1 centigrade was quite a shock to the system.
Certainly the cold easterly winds have had an effect on crops during the last month and it is very noticeable that oilseed has withered back to a growing core which is positive as the plants look clean and ready to grow away. So applying first dressings of a sulphur nitrogen product is an easy decision to make.
As field conditions have allowed, we have made a start on that leaving the strongest stands to last but with the intention of treating all the oilseed crops before the end of February. A more pronounced effect is obvious on the second wheat and poorer late first wheat and early nitrogen before or shortly after the end of February looks necessary. Ground conditions still reflect the long wet winter with any rain making it impossible to travel, let alone work ground. With such low ground temperatures from the cold snap, that may well benefit any spring drilling as it will have to wait for better warmer conditions.
International turmoil continues to wreak havoc with markets, mostly in a negative direction linked, in our case, to a weaker euro. The Ukraine situation is far from resolved and partitioning the country is likely to see it rumble on indefinitely with regular flare ups. However that seems to be the new norm for markets and Europe with the uncertainty over Greece and possible deflation being of far more immediate concern. No doubt a solution will be found as Greece leaving the euro would probably lead to Spain, Portugal and Italy considering their options – although any Greek deal will no doubt see those countries asking for the same consideration. One could almost feel sympathy for Germany but as the whole euro project seems to be configured for their long term economic benefit, perhaps not.
What is absolutely clear is that markets hate uncertainty and it will be our turn shortly as the general election looms and campaigning gets properly underway. As it stands there could be absolutely any outcome but with the greatest likelihood the uncertainly of a hung parliament. That may well deal with the strength of sterling in short order with grain markets reacting accordingly.
For agriculture the key issue of continued European Union membership is being brought into focus with the Conservatives promoting an early referendum and UKIP targeting farmers with the clear line of leaving Europe as soon as possible. UKIP did have a simple message of saying no to everything in Europe and to do with Europe but now with a rather unpleasant addition of immigration which is becoming a key issue for all the parties.
Looking just at agriculture the EU single market is crucial to British farming, accounting for 75% of our food exports and more than a third of lamb production. On a wider perspective we do have a large balance of trade deficit so clearly outside of Europe trade deals would be done and most advocates of withdrawal point to the European Economic Area (EEA) members as a way of retaining access to the single market.
However those single market arrangements do not currently apply to agriculture and countries in the EEA do have to observe all of the regulations required for operation of the single market, most notably free movement of labour, as well as contributing financially to the EU. Europe lite with lower contribution, the same regulatory burden but no say in decision making. Clearly the big question for farmers is what an independent British agricultural policy would look like and none of the mainstream British parties have yet set that out. (UKIP have but they are not going to be in power: at best they will be a splash of colour in a rainbow coalition).
In terms of detail, Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all committed to the phasing out of direct payments by 2020 or as soon as possible afterwards but within Europe, which is unlikely to happen. If we assumed that policy continues for a UK outside Europe driven by the Treasury then we probably can all surmise the outcome.
Clearly the question of imports into our markets is also key. While we are in Europe there is the common EU customs tariff applied to third countries with Europe negotiating trade agreements with other blocs such as the United States in the North American Free Trade Agreement and Mercosur – often it seems to the detriment to agriculture – to get deals done. Would an independent UK allow more agricultural imports especially if bound up with wider trade agreements? Again I think the answer is obvious.
As mentioned above, immigration has become a key issue for this election driven by UKIP into the main stream because free movement of labour is fundamental to Europe and the single market and it can be used to prey on people’s fears and prejudices as well nostalgia for past times. Labour availability is a key issue for farming especially in Kent with our fruit industry and the demise of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has highlighted that. Outside of Europe it is difficult to see where we would find the labour to run some of our businesses if an anti-immigration policy becomes embedded in law.
There is the other side and we are all frustrated with the European regulations not least the greening in the new basic payment scheme, the move away from a competitive focus for our industry in common agricultural policy reform, ignoring science in the regulation of agrichemicals and the availability of biotechnology. But we have our domestic challenges on that front, not least the issues around badger protection and bovine TB. At the end of the day do I think agriculture will be treated fairly in a UK outside Europe? No I do not.