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Update on Agriculture – Food or Fuel?

The Counties within our FSB Region are all considered to be rural with high levels of agriculture and horticulture. It could be said that whatever business our readers are in there is always an interest in what our Farmers are doing. We asked FSB Regional Chairman Doug Balderson, an Agricultural Consultant and Merchant, to update us and consider if the fields are producing food or fuel? Doug reported:

“As Mother Nature wreaks havoc and destruction around the world with news media headlines regularly reporting horrific hurricanes and tragic earthquakes - it detracts from the very hot early summer we had.

The drought in very early spring was not good for crops with spring ones finding difficulty in establishing with the cold and lack of moisture resulting in a very delayed and difficult harvest (certainly in cereals) due to re-growth when the rains came in July/August. - In general the cereal harvest quality and yield was fair. Reasonable quality for milling wheat’s, feed grains and malting barley for the brewers.

Once cereals are harvested there is a need for an accurate risk assessment on grain quality. Legal limits apply for fusarium mycotoxins (known to cause health issues) in cereals intended for human consumption and guidance limits for grain for feed. The owner (farmer, merchant or processor) is legally obliged to comply with food laws and ensure the grain is safe for human consumption and these are regularly audited.

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How things have changed with the speed of mechanical cultivations, planting and harvesting – and with that urgency for speed to gather crops at their optimum quality comes labour issues and machinery cost – and Mother Nature sends a different permutation of weather to contend with.

The secret to every successful business is the end product being produced in top condition and delivered in a very timely and efficient manner. Mechanisation is always being improved. Recent years have seen tractors and their implements all linked with satellite guidance for precision and efficiency to ensure the regulated products are applied within the tolerances allowed. Some of the new large tractors are close on £300k on farm.

Getting the grain in from the field to the grain store is due to change with new ranges of combines with cutting widths up to 15 metres filling a 17 tonne built-in grain tank which can unload grains at the rate of virtually 1/5th of a tonne per second on the move. These monsters will obviously not be for the small family farm but expect them to be rolling on farm at around £600K. These are the kind of investments that are being made in crop production to ensure timely and efficient crop harvest.

Though the cereal, sugar beet, potato and fodder crops are all harvested with high output, utilising technology, there is still a demand for labour intensive planting and harvesting of vegetable crops. Vegetables are grown on some of the best Grade 1 land in the country. The growers are continually searching for ways to produce their crops more economically as each year there are less pesticides available to keep at bay quality reducing disease and pests.

The harvesting of a lot of these crops is labour intensive and unfortunately a lot of education has gone into this digital age where everything is done on line. Sorry - but your basic foods cannot be harvested by a click on an app on your smart phone – it’s often done at 4.00am in a freezing waterlogged field in the dark with a very sharp knife to bring that quality cauliflower to your shopping basket at a very cheap price. This is whilst we still have Eastern European labourers who are willing to turn up day after day to do it.

Cereal seed crops need gangs of people to rogue wild oats and pernicious weeds such as black grass to ensure the crops will pass for seed to grow further pure crops and NIAB Licensed crop inspectors have to check these crops to ensure the varieties are pure. All this is done visually and manually in all weathers come rain or shine. It can’t be done with an app whilst sat in a nice air conditioned office!

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have just reminded farmers of the importance of managing risks to workers during the potato harvest, as it launches its latest inspection initiative. HSE statistics show that there have been 30 deaths on farm in Great Britain over the last 12 months. Incidents during the potato harvest remain a common cause of serious and fatal injury, including falls from height, entanglement with machinery or being struck or run over by vehicles. Like a lot of the countryside you need to hear what is going on around you and not have your ears plugged into a smart phone whilst walking, jogging or riding a bike. Be Aware – Stay Alive!

Cereals, sugar beet, maize and vegetable waste are all fed to Anaerobic Digester Plants (ADP’s) and Bio-ethanol fuel plants to produce some of the nation’s energy requirements. There are currently 3 major Bio-ethanol plants in the UK - Ensus on Teesside, Vivergo at Hull and British Sugar in Norfolk.

The £350m Hull plant alone consumes 1.1m tonnes of locally sourced feed wheat annually in a process which involves fermenting and distilling and produces 420m litres of ethanol and also 500,000 tonnes of protein rich animal feed – providing the protein required to feed 340,000 dairy cows every day! It employs around 100 people and supports 2,000 or more supply chain jobs including farmers and hauliers. The Norfolk plant produces around 70m litres of bioethanol from sugar beet. Bioethanol is blended with conventional petrol to make a greener, more sustainable transport fuel.

Bio-digesters on farm are huge consumers of material and are even fed the waste from vegetable crop processing. Whole crop Maize is grown as forage - not just as excellent cattle feed - but is also harvested and stored to feed the bio-digester plants, as is sugar beet. The gas produced powers turbine generators which pump electricity into the grid.
Once the energy has been taken from these materials and by-products – the waste is fed back to the land as a nutrient rich fertiliser to help further crops grow and also to improve the soil conditions.  
 
Sadly now, food wise, nothing is seasonal as the consumer has been educated to ‘expect’ be able to buy the same species of fruit and veg all year round. Crops such as potato’s and cabbages are harvested and delivered to costly (energy wise) environmentally and quality controlled stores so that the housewife can enjoy the same quality of some of the mainstay of vegetables all year round.

The EU very recently decided to cut its import tariffs on Argentinian biodiesel from 25.7% to 8.1% - the first drop since the tariffs were put in place in November 2014 as an anti-dumping measure. This immediately resulted in an £8.00 per hectare drop in Oilseed Rapeseed values to the farmer overnight. This indicates what tariff adjustments and volatility hold in store for us all in the future - when Brexit really happens.

Brexit issues:  The UK will have to re-negotiate its trade and policy relationships with each EU member state. That is going to be a critical process for this country, which currently sends 70% of its food and agricultural products to other EU nations. The UK will also have to figure out how to rework its farm insurance, subsidy payments and environmental programmes which all have very long term ramifications. This is a very complex issue when planning long and healthy crop rotations – and even more difficult when you get into livestock breeding and judging the blood lines.

Lincolnshire is famous for its Long Wool sheep which are Britain’s largest sheep and the Lincoln Red cattle breed which produce fantastic flavour beef. The large pig and poultry units are producing pork (Lincolnshire sausages, etc.), poultry and eggs. All the birds and animals produce by-product - which gives off methane and this is also used to generate electricity. 

The miles and miles of hedge rows and walls hide the field margins and corners growing various species of grasses and bursting with wild flowers creating havens for the birds, animals and insects. These all abound around the spectrum of colours of the host of crops growing from the brown of the tilled land through the patch work of various flowering colours of blue (linseed), pink (poppies), red (weed poppies), yellow (oilseed rape), purple (field beans and clover) etc.

Then there is the particular concern for the safety of the farm animals grazing in fields where people walk dogs - especially those not on a lead and this is always a concern at lambing time and when the calves are turned out with very protective mothers.

Hare Coursing is a blood sport which has been illegal since 2004, but the people involved in this illegal ‘sport’ tend to have a total disregard for the wildlife, the law, the establishing crop, the soil conditions, the grower and also the police. Intimidation and violence to the land owners, who mostly live in isolated homes, is not unknown and is not an irregular occurrence. 

China’s increased birth rate (up by 11.5% in 2016 alone) and her ever increasing demand for food means she will not be traditionally exporting urea nitrogen (to make crops grow) but actually may be an importer. The lower sterling values since the financial instability caused by Brexit has seen the price of nitrogen to rocket by 25% since June alone – so rapidly increasing costs for food production.

There is a whole complex set of rules and environmental regulations accompanying the growing of our food and fuel (for energy or for our bodies) and as demands for food crop safety increases, like many other industries the agriculture and horticultural sections of our business community will need to be fleet of foot to be successful in the forthcoming volatile period.”