The immediate economic impact of Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine on UK arable farming has been to increase both growing costs and the value of grain. But as diesel, fertiliser, pesticide and grain prices continue to fluctuate wildly, it’s impossible to know, as growers, whether or not we face a viable future.
A big problem, of course, is that the UK is no longer the industrial powerhouse it once was. This means that most of the agri-chemicals, fertilisers and farm machinery that arable farmers need are now imported.
This dependence on imports adds greatly to the instability of our input prices. We cannot even be sure of being able to get adequate supplies, but additionally what we pay for them is subject to extreme volatility. A tractor or a tonne of ammonium nitrate that is made in a country where the currency suddenly strengthens against sterling is immediately going to cost a lot more to the British farmer trying to buy it.
Thankfully, it is a long time since arable farmers had to grow home-produced grain in an economic environment dominated by the effects of a war. But at least during the two world wars of the 20th century, the array of inputs required to grow a crop was limited. Work was largely carried out by horses, which ran on oats rather than diesel. Once sown, it was down to the vagaries of the season as to whether or not the farmer achieved a good harvest.
Contrast that to today, where we try to guarantee a good harvest through the application of an endless array of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. Having created ‘tramlines’ in our crops, we turn them into busy thoroughfares by passing along them with a sprayer throughout the growing season to implement a programme of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide applications.
As if that weren’t enough, we then follow the sprayer with a fertiliser spreader to carry out a series of ammonium nitrate dressings at different growth stages.
There is no obvious way of weaning the modern arable farmer off this dependence on expensive inputs. So, in the wake of Putin’s assault on Ukraine, if the Government ever becomes serious about developing a policy that ensures stable levels of home grown grain production, it will also have to take an interest in making the UK more self-sufficient in the manufacture of the inputs, like farm machinery and agri-chemicals, that grain producers need.