As a new arable farming year begins, what should my approach be to the current economic environment in which I find myself? Should I be brimming with confidence based on improved profit margins on my arable enterprise, with feed wheat trading at about £230 per tonne ex-farm? Or, alternatively, should I be racked with doubt that ongoing inflation in my production costs, combined with terminal cuts to my Basic Payments, will gradually erode my profit margins?
One nagging doubt that increasingly bothers me is whether or not my little corner of East Sussex has a viable future for arable farming, given the rapidly rising cost of bulk grain transport from this area. I’ve just been quoted an alarming £25 per tonne to haul 120 tonnes of field beans to Ipswich, but even that offer comes with the caveat that the quote only stands provided “we can find the wheels “.
The reason, apparently, for there being so few bulk crop transporters willing to come to my area is that there is nothing for them to “bring down”, like bulk animal feeds, as all the chicken and pig farms are increasingly concentrated in the Eastern Counties. So, as these lorries mostly come to me empty, it greatly increases their costs as they are not paid anything by another party for half of the round trip.
At least when they arrive here they get a reasonably quick load these days. I now have a big, high-tipping grain bucket, and even the largest lorry bodies are soon brimming with grain. Twenty years ago, I used to load lorries with a Kongskilde sucker blower unit that, on a good day, would suck and blow about 10 tonnes an hour from my corn store into the truck.
The process also involved lots of shovelling (by me) and the removal of on-floor ducts and hessian sacks as loading progressed. On a bad day, if there was a lot of chaff in the grain, the machine would regularly block up and have to be switched off, cleaned out and then re-started.
The truck driver reaction to my loading facilities varied from jolly to extremely angry at the thought of spending half a working day watching the slow dribble of grain fill their truck. If anyone complained about the wait, I used to point to the spare shovel as a way of speeding things up, which mostly resulted in them disappearing back into their cabs with a loud slam of the door.
I finally decided I needed to modernise my crop loading capability when, one day, two trucks appeared simultaneously and I had to explain that the second truck might have to wait five hours before he was loaded.
I left them to sort out which one of them was going to be loaded first and went into the grain store to start up the sucker blower. I heard an engine start and assumed that one of the lorries was pulling under the loading spout, only to discover that both drivers had thought better of getting a load at all and simply driven off.
But, even with my current, quick-loading capability, I’m once more having problems finding haulage for my crops. Our main local grain haulier was bought out several years ago by an aggregates haulage company, which quickly converted the fleet to predominantly aggregates haulage.
So, with local grain mills ever more scarce, let’s hope that with transport costs as high as they are, we are not headed in the same direction as sugar beet, where the crop can only be grown very close to where it’s processed.