Heifers ended up on the A272 after gates left open

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Following the storms, we are now in a period of calm weather; unusually mild for January it must be said, and we have dispensed with almost half of it already. I find that the first half of January passes in a blur, with New Year taking care of the first week as people get back into some semblance of normality. Getting used to putting 2012 on paperwork and cheques, planning our maize planting strategy, fertilizer requirements, grass silage and grazing planning; have been issues to grapple with over the last week or so.

We have also been discussing our herd health, fertility performance and feeding strategy recently, and discussing what changes to make. One change that happened suddenly was our young-stock feed supplier at Tillington, following a delivery made between Christmas and New Year by the company we have dealt with for many years. The lorry driver duly arrived, unloaded his delivery of nuts into the feed-bin, and then promptly drove off, leaving both gates open (we have two in series for security). Our 45 young heifers were on the way down to the A272 when luckily, a friend met them in their car, holding them up whilst Gwenan ran ahead to turn them back. I can forgive the company a rogue driver, but what I cannot forgive is not returning my call after my leaving a very angry message. That has cost them the business.

n We went to the cinema to see ‘The Iron Lady last week. Margaret Thatcher became Leader of the Conservative party when I was working for Brigadier Charles Hilary Vaughan in North Wales; a very interesting man. We spent a lot of time together, both on the Nannau Estate, and privately when I used to drive him to visit his daughter Trish (a very good friend of Lorayne’s) during her illness. ‘Watch out for this woman’ he said. ‘Things are going to be very different now’. I must admit that his views were at odds with not only people on the street, many of whom had not heard of this woman, but the media, who were not particularly kind at the time.

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in the same year as I arrived in West Sussex, and ‘The Brigadier’, who had sadly died before I left Wales, was proven to be absolutely right; whatever one’s views were. The audience in Guildford cinema last week were very different to the usual cinema audience; not least in the way they were dressed. There was no chatting, pop-corn, or rustling of sweet papers during the film, and afterwards there was silence as people made their way out. The film has no new content to speak of historically, and I can understand why many believe that it would have been much better and kinder, not to release such a film whilst Lady Thatcher is still alive. It is an interesting perspective, sympathetic, and very sad. The characters and acting are pretty average apart from Meryl Streep who is truly outstanding, and it is one of the best performances I have ever seen, totally overshadowing everyone else and the story itself. Jim Broadbent is also very good as Dennis Thatcher. It’s not a great film, a triumph of make-up over substance, but I am glad I saw it.

n I attended the Oxford Farming Conference last week, where many distinguished and interesting people spoke about agriculture and its place in the world. Dr Joseph Glauber Chief Economist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) spoke of tight and volatile world markets in the near term, but (if allowed), with science and technology, increased yields over the next ten years should allow stock rebuilding. He said Government should foster policies which allow consumers and producers to make decisions based on market prices. He also said that maize can be turned to ethanol with no subsidy at an equivalent oil price of $130 a barrel, adding that wheat would not be far behind.

George Magnus, Senior Economic Adviser to UBS Investment Bank told us that whilst we see the current financial crisis as ‘global’, China sees it as a Western financial crisis. He spoke of the ‘demographic dividend’ (discussed in this column last year), at play in Asia, where the ageing population has yet to become a real burden, and productivity is benefitting from previous birth rates. China however, is the fastest aging population on the planet, and will by mid century be the most ancient population. The UK had its demographic dividend in the 1980’s and early 1990’s (Thatcher’s time), but it took both the UK and USA 70-100 years to double its aged population; China and emerging countries will do so in 20 years, which is very significant.

Professor Sir Bob Watson, Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor told us that reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is critical, and that ecosystem services need to be properly paid for. Consumers will need to see the benefit of GM before they will accept the technology. Science only informs, it does not give answers; government makes the decisions, and all he asks is for them not to distort the results.

Terry Hehir, a fellow Nuffield Scholar who spent time in Sussex during his studies, and whose farm I visited during my travels through Australia, spoke powerfully about the report ‘Power in Agriculture’; with particular reference to Transnational Corporations (TNC’s). Terry farms in the Golden Valley in Northern Victoria, where temperatures were 40 c last week! The area depends on irrigated pastures, and that water is seriously threatened as urban demand continues to rise.

‘Power in Agriculture’ is a study commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference, and shows where Global power in agriculture lies; be that political, economic or natural resources. The only thing left out of this study is science and technology, which is something we would have scored highly in this country. Power at present is concentrated in North America and Europe; Brazil and New Zealand are the largest exporters of some commodities (dairy and beef).

There is no suggestion that this will change in the next 10 years, although Europe has already retreated from world markets; a position which is likely to continue without major policy change. When it comes to corporate power, it is the same story with huge TNC’s in both Europe and the USA. On the political front, China, Brazil and India are the leaders in the shift of political power towards developing countries and their emerging economies. When it comes to the critical natural resources, it’s a grim picture. Many of today’s powerful agricultural economies in the world including Europe and the USA are poorly endowed with the critical resources used in agriculture; land, water, potassium, phosphate, oil and natural gas.

The UK punches above its weight in terms of trade, corporate and political power, but is lowly rated in the report in terms of natural resources. This puts us behind countries such as Russia and China (vastly bigger of course) in terms of overall power; the EU 27 however are much stronger overall as a trading block, only bettered by the good ‘ol US of A; top-dog for the time being.

Farm Diary - Gwyn Jones