Poor crops mean straw is expensive this year

A cold snap has certainly reminded us that it is mid-winter, although it’s nothing compared to how winter can be. We not only have snowdrops in flower, but a few daffodils in the garden as well; now they are really early! At Tillington the little wild daffodils are all out competing with the carpet of snowdrops for attention. The trees are budding, and it all seems on the move; I guess there may well be a real shock in store, but we are well into January now, and the days are lengthening. The sunny days are pleasant, and as I watch the planes fly into Gatwick this morning, glinting in the sunlight, their approach from this direction is always a good sign.

The wildlife is challenged at this time of year as food is scarce. I saw a fox walking around our hen-house in the garden on Thursday afternoon, the hens shouting and pecking at him through the wire. I let my English Bull Terrier out to chase him away, but by the time she had registered what was going on, he was gone. Dairy farms are good places for birds to survive the winter as there is plenty of food around; it doesn’t suit all of them, and we still get a fair number of birds feeding in the garden, including our woodpecker.

Straw is an expensive commodity this year, following poor growth of cereal crops in many areas, poor weather during harvesting making it difficult to bale the straw, and the amount of straw being exported to Holland, and France in particular, has tightened the market. Luckily we have a fixed price contract on all our straw, but each year it seems to go up. We are particularly keen to get our straw from areas of the country that do not have chalky flint soils in future, following an expensive winter replacing rubber lobes on the bio-digester pumps, torn apart by flints in the muck. They come out of our straw spreading machine at speed, denting the sheeted gates at the end of our straw yards; you certainly would not bed the cows down whilst they were in the shed! In fairness, the straw was turned over several times in order to get it dry in the autumn, and the machinery lifted some of the flints and mixed it in, but we don’t want this to happen again.

We are involved in quite a lot of maintenance on the Bio-digester this month, replacing some worn parts and generally getting it ready to increase its output. We have discovered as we get better at running the plant that we can produce enough gas to push the electricity output well above the 1 megawatt initially planned for. All efforts will be made to produce as much gas as possible as we start our new contract with Sainsbury’s, who will be buying our green electricity as well as our milk from next month.

We have started ploughing the maize fields, having spread the muck last week. The dry conditions are perfect, and we are getting on with ploughing a third of the acreage this month. I am planning to buy even less chemical fertilizer this year as we get better at utilizing our own digestate from the bio-plant. We will get the digestate chemically analysed again this year, and we are investing in metering equipment in order to be more precise with our applications.

Robert Wiseman Dairies was under offer from the German yogurt Company Muller at the end of last week, much to everyone’s surprise, and should it go through in due course, would represent a major shake-up in the dairy industry. Things are still changing quite fast in the dairy sector and one leading dairy company admitted to me that they had lost 3000 high yielding dairy cows in the South East alone last year; all have exited the industry. That represents a great deal of milk.

It was ‘The Grocer’ magazine’s 150th birthday last week (1862 – 2012), and in Victorian times, customers paid 13 times more for the weekly shop; an eye watering £1254.00 equivalent versus £93.95 for the weekly shop (based on average earnings measure of inflation). Food prices have risen of late; they bottomed out in 2007 when families spent on average 6.8% of their gross income on food. Food prices have increased by about 12% in real terms since 2007, but had fallen 32% in real terms between 1975 and 2007. Retailers have kept food increases at half inflation rates over the past year, but all consumers have noticed the increase. Was 2007 the year of cheapest food ever?

Running down the list it is interesting to see how expensive certain items were 150 years ago. Gin for example; 8 shillings a quart (£9.52 today) equivalent to £144.44, after government put up taxes hugely to tackle the ‘binge drinking’ mainly on cheap gin, which had been such a common feature in the 18th century. Tea was also heavily taxed, with the 1s 5d per pound representing half the retail price of 3 shillings (£49.17p today). It took a minimum of 4-5 months to transport tea from China to Britain, with companies like the ‘East India Company’ running the risk of losing one ship in every three to bad weather and pirates!

So what did ‘The Grocer’ magazine see as the defining moments of the last 150 years? Here are a few. Pasteurisation of foods (1862), Campbell start canning everything from tomatoes to mincemeat (1869), Cadbury’s Easter egg moulds (1875), Lyons teas shop Piccadilly (1894), Persil, the first ‘self-activated’ detergent (1907), Ammonia nitrogen fertilizer (1911), Sliced Bread! (1928), 1947 Agriculture Act (Attlee government), the first TV ad (1955).

Norman Borlaug’s green revolution with high-yielding hybrid grain crops (1961), Ski yoghurt (1963), plastic carrier bags (1963), National chilled distribution (1969), Big Mac hits the UK high street (1974), bar-code (1974), M&S pre-packed sandwiches (1981), Olive oil goes mainstream (1982), Buy one get one free (1985), 24hr trading (1994), three tier retailing; good, better, best, (1998), Food Standards Agency created (2000), groceries on-line (2000), instant microwave rice (amongst the biggest events in convenience food history 2004),

Looking at the big retailers, the Co-op’s (300 of them) came together in 1863, to establish the first big buying group. Sainsbury’s started in 1869, in Drury Lane, offering quality food, good service and high levels of hygiene. Tesco stores floated on London Stock Exchange in 1947; 174 times oversubscribed! In 1952 Morrison’s makes its move, as Ken Morrison takes over his father’s market stall in Bradford, opening their first supermarket 10 years later. Asda is the last to be born, in 1963, as the Asquith brothers join forces with Associated Dairies; snapped up by Wal-Mart in 1999.

The first ‘Superstore’ opened in Crawley, as Tesco coined the phrase for its new West Sussex store (there are now 500). We also had Iceland arrive in 1970, petrol at supermarkets (Tesco) in 1974, Waitrose introducing organic lines in 1983, Tesco introduces ‘own-label’ in 1995, Aldi arrives in 1990, and Asda launches the ‘George’ fashion label the same year.

Turning to farming, Edwina Currie wrecked the egg market in 1988, the Milk Marketing Board was abolished in 1994, ‘Dolly’ the sheep made an appearance in 1996. And the future? Whatever the future holds, you can be sure that it will be competitive, innovative and busting to offer the consumer best value.

Farm Diary - Gwyn Jones