Arable farmer Amy Geddes prepares for 2023 rollercoaster

The 2022 harvest was one full of ‘firsts’ according to Angus arable farmer Amy Geddes when she addressed NFU Scotland’s Autumn Conference in Dunfermline.   

“It was the first time many of us have experienced such a prolonged hot, dry summer. The first time we’ve started and finished harvest so early. The first time the wheat price has broken £350/t, and the first-time fertiliser prices have topped £1000/t.

The final figures are in from the NFU Scotland 2022 harvest survey, and the majority of cereal crops across the regions have performed well in both yield and quality despite worries around the lack of moisture during the growing season in many areas, which peaked with water restrictions and numerous field and machinery fires, however it certainly kept the drying costs to a bare minimum.

Regarding pulses, harvest data is not complete, but general reports are of mixed results dependant on timing of establishment, soil type and the very localised weather conditions we are now experiencing, rain was a hit or miss. Autumn crop establishment swiftly followed on, with all but some late sowings now completed. Warm seedbeds and the return of decent rainfall has ensured winter cereals and cover crops are looking well, which has please my grazier no end.

The ease of this season’s harvest and the prospect of a very decent return from it is however set against a backdrop of increasingly unpredictable weather, escalating input costs, volatile markets, economic and political turmoil and a clear shift anticipated in agricultural policy.

There is little doubt that 2023 promises to be a roller coaster.

Understanding and getting to grips with the cumulative impact and potential outcomes of these events on farming is no easy task, so I will focus briefly on some key issues.

The exceptional rise in input costs is hitting hard right across the board.  Fuel cost at home up 48% between Spring and Autumn work, wearing metal up 58%, and every fertiliser product I use up on average 200% since 2020.   The rise in fertiliser costs began building with product shortages due to the pandemic and an initial rise in gas price, then accelerated exponentially with Russia invading Ukraine. Gas prices have now hopefully peaked, and we hope to see a corresponding drop in Nitrogen price.
However, the strategic importance of fertilisers must be recognised by Government, and support for domestic production where possible put in place. Soil testing, nutrient management plans, incorporating livestock and organic manures, cover cropping, bi-cropping, all viable longer term actions which with the right Government policy and support, can be integrated now to make our systems more resilient, but transition takes time, and there is a real possibility we could see the price of Nitrogen fertilisers in the UK impacting directly on production levels considering the break-even ratio.

Greater flexibility from markets on crop varieties, the use of alternative fertilisers such as digestate, clearer fairer contracts, and premium markets for grains with sustainable credentials, with the ‘green value’ staying on the farm, all practical actions which could support and maintain our cropping sector as we meet the challenges ahead.

There is no doubt it is currently a balancing act managing input costs against farm gate prices, and I would encourage growers to seek the best advice they can, and to use the help freely available such as Farmbench and the Nitrogen Fertiliser Adjustment calculator facilitated by the AHDB.

Plant Protection Products are now regulated from within the UK, with the HSE taking on this role. Currently I sit on both the Pesticide Stakeholder Group and the VI Scotland committee alongside other NFUS and industry representatives, Government policy makers and scientific advisors.  As a sector we must continue to demonstrate best practice and champion a broader uptake of Integrated Pest Management practices, which amongst many positive actions encourages and promotes the appropriate use of PPP’s.  Better for our environment and the variable costs. But it is also essential we highlight for example the important role Glyphosate plays in many low tillage systems, and in cleaning up potato volunteers to help stop the spread of PCN and blight in our seed potatoes.

It is crucial Government and Policy makers take an informed, balanced, and science-based approach to UK regulation, maintaining access to all the tools in the box, and thereby allowing us to meet the needs of sustainable food production, climate change mitigation and increased biodiversity. The supply chain also has a key role in managing impacts from this regulatory change. Worth noting for example that from the end of 2023 onwards any treated seed coming in from the EU, as much of my oilseed rape seed has in the past few years, will require to have been treated with a product authorised for that purpose in Great Britain, meaning any PPP authorisations must be applied for and granted before then. Or we look to invest more in home grown seed?

Investment in farming businesses will be the driver of a sustainable and vibrant rural economy.   Direct investment needs to be sufficient to ensure farmers can maintain the capability to produce food and drink for Scotland, and to do it whilst meeting climate and biodiversity needs as well. The Agri-Environment Climate Scheme is only funded currently until 2024.   Farming need certainty as planning is done for the longer term.  Will such measures continue to be supported, and will they be properly valued?  We need to build on existing knowledge exchange networks such as Farming for a Better Climate and continue to invest in our people.  We have world class Research and Development in the likes of the James Hutton Institute, whose full potential has yet to be utilised when we consider new and emerging technologies such as Gene Editing. As a sector are looking towards the future and considering digital grain passports, and as such need to ensure connectivity in rural areas continues apace and no one is left behind.

We have the capability and the passion to meet the objectives for sustainable food production, climate and nature, what we need now is the empowerment and the investment to get on and do it.

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