VERY wet but warm weather has put us back as far as any thought of travelling on the land is concerned. An inch of rain has made the clay at Plaistow pudding like again, and our earlier euphoria needs to be put on hold. Walking the fields at Tillington, the ragwort plants are nicely established in little rosettes waiting to spring into action. We have a little surprise in (the chemical) store which will hopefully get rid of most, but they come back year after year.
I have been poring over soil analysis, fertilizer plans, and maize varieties, making sure that I have everything in place to make sure that our maize yields are good this year, but the weather is of course outside my control, and I do not want a repeat of last year.
With all the fields ploughed, we will not lose moisture in April when it is likely to be much drier, and we can drill into moist soil. I have been contemplating growing wheat in rotation, cutting it as ‘whole-crop’ which can be fed to cows or the anaerobic digester.
This could be a plan for the future, should the diabrotica beetle (a fierce traveller) arrive in this country again, with Defra legislating against continuous maize growing. The beetle arrived in Europe during the Kosovo war, carried on American fighter planes, and has spread around European countries. It arrived in the Gatwick area briefly in 2006, but has not been seen since, luckily.
n The big event this week is the NFU Annual Conference in Birmingham, where politicians, economists, and other experts will gather to speak, take part in breakout sessions, workshops, or Question Time; over the two days. NFU President Peter Kendall will be giving the opening address, followed by the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman.
In his opening address, Peter Kendal will touch on a number of vital points, asking the Secretary of State a number of questions, challenging the Defra team to rise to the serious challenges ahead. He will speak about the Foresight Report, asking if we are up for the challenge; do rich governments worry about feeding the world? In this country, we have rather thought the answer is always somewhere else.
If we stay where we are in this country, and our population grows to 70 million as predicted, then one in two meals will be imported. Many people comment on how bad it is when some countries ban exports, but how should we compare compromised countries, struggling to feed their people, to rich countries who allow their agriculture to decline, expecting the rest of the world to feed them; where is the morality in that?
The NFU President will compliment the government on their work to get rid of unnecessary regulation and red tape which stifle small businesses, the pragmatic decisions on the way that the pesticides directive is implemented, their action to tackle the scourge of bovine TB in the countryside, protecting R&D spend in the budget cuts; but, where is the food plan? Where is the White Paper that reflects the Foresight challenges?
n When David Cameron came to the NFU Conference in 2008 as Leader of the opposition, he talked about the risk of the UK depending on food imports, at a time when abundant food supplies around the world was coming to an end. He talked about ranking food security alongside energy security and even national security, something the last government actually started to do towards the end of office. Let’s not allow it to slide from view now that David Cameron is Prime Minister.
There are two critical issues for government to address urgently- planning and the supply chain. Modern agriculture, sustainable intensification, needs a proper national planning strategy. We can see this from the recently won planning case over poly-tunnels, the row at Nocton over the proposed dairy unit, the planning applications for expansion of pig and poultry units which run into difficulty; without a national planning framework, nimby’ism will win the day.
n In the supply chain, we see daily abuse. Dairy farmers paid 4p per litre below the European price, pig producers receiving less for their meat as retail price increases, and egg producers facing unfair competition having spent 30 million complying with new EU legislation on hen welfare, only to see many other countries not bothering to do so. We saw what happened the last time, when our pig producers unilaterally did away with sow crates, and our pig sector was halved as a result of unfair competition from Europe where the practice continued.
Richard Longthorp OBE wrote powerfully in ‘The Grocer’ magazine, where he claimed that ‘morally bankrupt’ retailers are ruining the pig sector. He describes how the cost to pig producers jumped 14 per cent last autumn, supermarkets dropped their price by 4 per cent to farmers and processors, whilst raising the retail price in the shops by 10 per cent. He claims that today pig farmers are losing £21 on each pig produced, which cannot go on, and having been hit by a similar crisis in 2007, the industry again teeters on the edge of collapse. 70 per cent of pig farmers say that they will quit if returns do not improve.
With higher welfare standards that is the case in Europe, shoppers are very supportive of British pig farmers, with more shoppers willing to pay more for higher welfare. Instead, retailers are effectively being subsidised from the pig industry’s balance sheet, which whilst morally bankrupt, is quite simply unsustainable. The pig farmers are desperate for a proper contract, dedicated supply chains are proposed, but are falling on deaf ears. Waitrose, however do have such an arrangement with their pig producers, and continue to invest from farm to retail shelf, improving welfare, environmental benefit, efficiencies, people and the skills they need to fuel the necessary growth over the next 20 years.
Caroline Spellman and Jim Paice have put it on record that she wants an end to farm subsidies in the next decade. They believe that with higher food prices farmers should get their share and all will be well. This of course is exactly where farmers would like to be, as the market has factored in any payments received and included it in the price they pay for years. The vital point is this: Has the government enough sense to see that they need to tackle the supply chain in order to make it work to begin with, or do they think that scrapping the CAP would somehow sort it all out and higher prices would automatically find their way to the farm gate? That is the road to ruin for many, many farmers in this country, and where does that leave food security?
Last week we saw serious concerns about fresh produce from Egypt. We have already seen grain prices double, soya and other commodities increase sharply The price of spices, and other ingredients have also risen due to shortage. Do not be fooled by retailers, they are adding to the problem, and will make it worse, much worse if they do not put their customers before short term excessive profits.