Time to diversify my portfolio

As many maybe considering, Joe Stanley plans to drop oilseed rape in favour of a five-crop rotation:

With an elongated harvest finally drawn to a close, I can report that I’ve had no difficulty in shutting the grain store door this year. Yields were spot on my rather gloomy pre-harvest predictions, with OSR yielding some 1.6t/ha and winter wheat around 5.2t/ha – 50% of what we would normally hope for. Winter feed barley was somewhat better at around 6.7t/ha, but was ultimately surpassed by our unplanned spring feed barley at 7.5t/ha. Our foray back into the spring malting market did make the grade, but at only 6t/ha got nowhere near parity with the feed barley after a meagre £10/t premium.

There are few conclusions to be drawn from such an extreme season, save perhaps that a wider portfolio of cropping is desirable in our increasingly unstable climate. In retrospect I’m thankful that I was unsuccessful in mauling more than 25% of my winter cropping in; would only I had put the entire farm into spring barley!

Perhaps one of the fringe benefits of the OSR/neonic policy debacle – if only from the point of view of personal satisfaction – is that with the disappearance of the yellow peril from our farm after three decades we’re going to see a more diverse rotation going forward. Planting 20/21 will see not our traditional three-crop WW/WB/WOSR but a new five-crop WW/WB/Winter Beans/Spring Barley/Spring Oats and (if our Countryside Stewardship application is successful) rotational fertility builder options instead.

Of course, satisfying it may be to experience this more diverse rotation – and, long term, I hope it will be beneficial to the health of my land – but in the short-medium term my farm business income will almost certainly reduce as more farmers escaping the ravages of CSFB-riddled OSR (like me!) pile into the few realistic alternative crops and further saturate the already pretty sodden market. And that’s without taking into account the withdrawal of BPS from 2021 and the total unknown of ELM.

Of course, another big unknown at this point is trade. As government gushes breathlessly at every slight development in talks with the USA, New Zealand, Australia or Canada, it continues to treat trade negotiations with our European partners with unconcealed disdain – despite >60% of our agricultural exports being sold to the Continent. The odds of a ‘no deal’ exit (or bare bones agreement) on January 1st are shortening by the week, a prospect which should be of grave concern to us all in the arable sector, seeing as it will tariffs of, for example, €93/t added to barley exports overnight.

Admittedly, vague promises have been made to support the sheep industry in the event of ‘no deal’, but one can’t help but think these are mostly predicated on the wealth of television and literary representations of that sector and the fuzzy place the British people (voters) subsequently have for upland sheep production in their hearts. Perhaps we need to commission a television series about a plucky, down on their luck broadacre arable farmer and their lovable agronomist sidekick which warms the hearts of the nation if we wish to get a look-in when it comes to consideration of bulk commodities in a no-deal scenario? Quite a plot.

Indeed, you would be forgiven for thinking that International Trade Secretary Liz Truss believes the success or otherwise of any trade deal when it comes to agriculture is entirely predicated on the volume of cheese exported, as with the recent Japan deal. Personally, I’m loathe to see any stilton move out of reach by leaving our shores, but I’m also certain that marginal gains for the artisanal fromagers of Melton Mowbray are unlikely to trickle down to offset the potential consequences of opening our markets up to American or Canadian bulk commodities produced using methods it would be illegal to use here. These are the trade offs which ministers remain unwilling to discuss honestly, but to which we must hold their feet to the fire in the coming months.

As for me, I am anticipating with great excitement the thought of finally erasing the evidence of the past 12 months from my fields in the coming weeks; and then roll on harvest 2021 – full barns, high prices and no breakdowns…

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About The Author

John Swire - Deputy editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.