A week is a long time in farming

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A week may be a long time in politics, but this year a week is a very long time when it comes to the weather and farming! On Friday we were travelling through France having left behind a wet farm with little prospect of making any grass silage, given the ground conditions and lack of sunshine.

Making our way south we could see that all crops in France looked very good, barley in ear swaying gently in the breeze, and overall everything looked very green indeed, just as it does here in the UK. There were many more uncultivated fields than usual, which pointed to wet weather; very wet weather in fact, and it turned out that April has been the same washout in France. Further south, past the Loire, one would expect things to be different, but no, I could see huge vehicle ruts in the tramlines on many cereal fields, evidence of grass silage having been made very late with heavily marked fields, very little maize showing, and no irrigators operating. We had one dry day, and two days of the most appalling rain, which lasted over 36 hours, and was as heavy as anything we have seen here.

The temperature was very low indeed, and it was thoroughly miserable, but not to worry, I was getting twice a day bulletins from home telling me that it was still dry and about to get better; a lot better. Having managed to do everything we needed to in the Dordogne, such as dealing with the water board for a new meter and having an old supply turned back on, buying some floor and bathroom tiles and making a few decisions for the builders; whilst we were washed out on Monday, the news came through that it was 25 degrees at home. I spent the rest of the time on the phone, organising the contractors to start silage making mid-week. On our way back, once north of the Loire the weather was much better, and the temperature rose as we travelled north! We saw tractors and cultivators everywhere; the whole of France ploughing, cultivating, planting potatoes, drilling maize, making grass silage. It looked like the biggest agricultural machinery show in the world; such was the activity.

On the way back, a phone call offered the opportunity to cut a day early (Tuesday); at the time there was talk of thunderstorms this last weekend, so I took the chance, knowing I would be there to inspect ground conditions in each field. On my return, I could not believe what my feet were telling me; it was dry! I have never seen this farm dry so fast, utterly incredible. We cut 350 acres on Tuesday and Wednesday, tedding behind the mower. They picked up 100 acres on Wednesday night and finished at midnight on Thursday. A massive crop of grass, which was of good quality, made in the most perfect conditions; can you believe it? I had bought an additive which was applied although hardly necessary in such conditions, and we have a huge clamp of first cut silage in the bag for next winter which should be nice and dry and of very good quality. I must go away more often!

The news that ‘Milklink’ Cooperative has formed the biggest dairy company in this country by (a proposal to) joining the massive ‘Arla Foods Amba’ (the Scandinavian and German Co-op), was greeted with universal admiration; the combined force will process almost a quarter of all British milk.

This will be (if voted for by Milklink members and the Arla Amba board) just reward for all Milklink members, who have invested heavily in their co-op and certainly taken a great deal of pain over the years, as they struggled to build a viable and competitive business, watching one Co-op fail and the other lose its way; leaving Milklink as the only thriving one of the three co-ops which started out following the debacle which was Milk Marque.

Why is this? Quite simply (and I was involved at the time), farmers in this area, led by Jim Harrison, decided that farmer involvement in the business needed to be minimal, and professional businessmen were to take the helm. Jim became chairman, with the understanding that having appointed an executive team; he would immediately replace himself as chairman. Farmers do not do that (!), and Jim should take a great deal of credit for the news last week. There are another group of farmers supplying Arla UK, with liquid milk. They have also taken some pain, but they, after many years of trying, are nowhere near the Milklink position, and are now feeling aggrieved. I am afraid that this underlines the fact that they are led by a group of farmers, with little to bring to the table, where as Milklink, an impressive business with a very strong track record, is led by the consummate professional Neil Kennedy and his team; the most impressive chief executive in the UK dairy industry today.

NFU President Peter Kendall has caused a political storm by comparing GM vandals to the ‘Nazi book burners’, at the House of Commons launch of NFU’s new campaign ‘Farming Delivers for Britain’. Many have been taken aback by these comments, but I know Peter Kendall very well, and he would not have made the reference lightly; he is highlighting a crucial point. A handful of individuals are taking the decision on our behalf, without consultation, that this country will not have proper scientific trials, totally independent trials, to monitor and learn more about increasing yields of cereals, reducing fertilizer input, reducing pesticide applications, explore more drought tolerant plants; indeed anything at all if it has genetic modification anywhere near it.

This at a time where there is a need to increase food production in order to feed an increasing UK, European and global population, keep food prices affordable for families on moderate income, reduce all (especially oil based) inputs due to climate change, pesticides and fungicides due to public pressure, and of course cost.

Peter Kendal has the support of the science community, and most farmers in defending science, in promoting learning, development, progress, responsible agriculture which fits with the needs of people in terms of food production, and their desires to lower carbon, meet emission targets; to maximise food production at lowest cost on the best land, whilst promoting extensive farming, and conservation where possible. This trial is a watershed, and we cannot have such trials trashed by those who do not want their views challenged; those who would deny us the opportunity to make up our own minds. Peter Kendall has not, and is not calling anyone a Nazi, he is comparing those who deny us knowledge and learning, arrogantly believing that they know best, with the Nazi order to burn books by Jewish, Communist, and other selected authors; in an attempt to ensure the Nazi message was not challenged by outside sources or influence.

Extreme Nationalism is something which will need to be watched very carefully in Europe as austerity and problems with the Euro escalate. We have seen the dramatic increase in right wing influence in France, Greece and elsewhere of late, and given recent history, where unrealistic terms were imposed on Germany in the ‘Treaty of Versailles’, led to extreme hardship, desperation and starvation, where extremism then thrives; we should learn from history, but we seldom do. In this country, there is a total lack of ideological coherence from government; there seems not to be a plan beyond reducing the deficit, it gives us no confidence that the hardship is part of a future vision. We knew what Thatcher stood for, and whether one agreed or not, there was a vision, coherence, direction and a strategy. There is a real worry that today’s very young politicians who have done nothing in the real world other than politics, have had little experience in life, are really struggling and it could well end in tears; our tears.

Gwyn Jones