Where are arable farmers to look for profit?

Writers Posted 09/10/19
Where are arable farmers supposed to look for a profit this autumn?

I received a phone call from someone running an event attached to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. He’d heard that I might have some straw bales for sale. My farm is about 25 miles east of Brighton so a tense discussion followed about the ‘delivered price’ of the bales. The voice on the other end of the line said: ‘You should know, Stephen, that we are a not-for-profit organisation’ to which I replied: ‘Same here – but in my case it’s not for want of trying’.

But just where are arable farmers supposed to look for a profit this autumn in terms of a cropping plan for harvest 2020? Old crop prices are desperate, and new crop forward values don’t look any more encouraging. Merchants tell me that the smart move is to grow crops that the UK does not export as we may be faced with prohibitive tariffs on anything that has to go to the EU or even other parts of the world after 31 October if we get a no-deal Brexit.

But the crop I mostly grow on my chalky downland farm is malting barley, which happens to be the only arable commodity that the UK does regularly have an export surplus of. The trouble with me switching from malting barley to the obvious alternative cereal crop – milling wheat (which the UK imports large quantities of) – is that farms like mine that find it easy to produce a good malting barley sample (needing a low nitrogen content) find it devilishly difficult to achieve a good milling sample (needing a high nitrogen content).

This year is a good case in point. I set out in the most determined fashion to produce a milling wheat sample by carefully selecting a grade one milling variety and then plastering the growing crop with every conceivable input. A full array of useful and very expensive herbicides and fungicides was brought to bear. If there was a growth stage at which it was suggested that an application of nitrogen might increase the protein content of my wheat then there I was with my Amazone spreader shovelling it on.

I have just received back the analysis of a sample of harvested and dried ‘milling’ wheat. Despite my very best efforts, it is just short of the required grade for a full milling specification. I’ve been offered a modest premium over feed with ‘clawbacks’, depending on how much below the required protein level my milling wheat is found to be when it arrives at the mill.

Yes, this is why I grow malting barley. However, if I can’t sell it, I will have to have another go at growing milling wheat. Try, try and try again, they said when I was growing up. But it’s difficult when you are a no-profit organisation.

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