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Combinable Crops Chairman's Blog - 8 August 2019

The good news is that harvest has started, and we have cut our winter barley.  The bad news is that, since then, the weather has turned for the worse and a promising harvest has turned into a stop/start affair around the country writes Combinable Crops Chairman Ian Sands.

Because of the changeable weather, we took the decision to chop our straw as it was going to be tricky to get it baled and there is virtually no demand for it, unlike last year.  

For us, it is more important to get next year's crop in the ground in good time rather than trying to bale straw that probably won't be worth very much anyway.  Also, the straw does add value when incorporated back into the land and with soil health being a big talking point, it makes sense to put it back into the land.

Since we finished cutting our winter barley, the poor weather turned the harvesting of our oilseed rape into a very stop - start affair, with prolonged rain, at times very heavy.  In one evening this week we had 42mm overnight, which made it impossible to do any field work the following day.  

This is even more frustrating for all growers in Scotland after such a great spring and early summer.  Crops are looking so good with a potential to yield well.  Hopefully the weather takes a turn and we clear the fields quickly and have no quality issues, or large drying bills!

While writing this, l am acutely aware that grain prices have been on the slide, with the wheat November futures price dropping by £7.25 over the past 3 days.  This is on the back of the pound being weaker than it has been for years, which would usually push grain prices up.  

Brexit and the talk of a 'no deal' is starting to affect the markets in all sectors of our industry.  With the talk of tariffs on grain leaving this country of 40% and our Government saying that no tariffs will be in place on cereals coming into the country, the potential for disaster is on the horizon.  That is why the union is fighting this happening at all levels.

The weak pound has other effects on our sector as it drives up prices.  Diesel is more expensive than last year, the cost of fertiliser for next year's crops - going into the ground soon - is higher, chemical prices increased this summer and will do again and the cost of new machinery has been rising over recent years at an alarming rate.  

This will only be fuelled by the weak pound, as not much of this machinery is manufactured in this country.  

We also have increased costs in the disposal of plastic off the farm.  l feel that the Government has not handled this well - banning incineration but not allowing time for the infrastructure to be put in place to recycle all this plastic.  There are now large amounts sitting on some farms waiting for a home or being put to land fill at a cost to the farmer.  Surely land fill is not the solution to this problem.  

As an industry, we have been under a lot of scrutiny and criticism of late regarding our alleged contribution to environmental woes.   Putting such a heavy burden on agriculture, while it appears that the majority do nothing different, seems wholly unfair.  We all have a part to play in this.  

We need to consider how all foodstuffs get into the shopping trolley and how many air miles it is shipped to get there?  Instead of taking home strawberries from Spain for example, we should look a bit harder and closer to home and only take Scottish grown ones.  It is in our gift to select only home grown produce and that, in turn, would force the supermarkets to only stock these products.  A bit of customer awareness and pressure could help our industry and our climate instead of expecting farmers and crofters to take all the responsibility.

In the last 12 months, the environment and the role of agriculture has moved up the agenda.  This issue is here to stay but we as an industry need to engage with this by sharing the positives, even if we get very little recognition.  Whether it's ecological focus areas, buffer strips or just cutting hedges later in the year, every little bit helps.

One of the big issues is the loss of plant protection products from our toolbox at an alarming rate, quite often because of unscientific reasoning. It will be more important, moving forward, to select varieties which are less susceptible to disease.  This is integrated pest management (IPM) at work, yet another win for the environment. But the public does need to understand that the use of safe plant protection products protects them too, for example by supressing fungal infections that produce dangerous toxins.

Cultivation techniques will also evolve.  Where suitable, we must adapt and improve where sensible but not be pushed by peer pressure or Government when particular methods are unsuitable for our situation, as no two farms are the same.

Times are changing but our industry is one of the best at grasping opportunity and with the help of new technology, plant breeding and a willingness to change we will thrive.

So, as a farmer, the next time someone is critical of your environmental footprint, just ask them what they have done for the environment recently.  l bet it will be nothing near what you are doing.   

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