Farming Insight: Weather keeps us on our toes says Westhorpe farmer David Barker

Launch of the Suffolk Hedgerows Survey report.Author of the report Guy Ackers and David Barker MBE a

Launch of the Suffolk Hedgerows Survey report.Author of the report Guy Ackers and David Barker MBE at a site in Westerfield on the B1077.

In this month’s National Farmers’ Union column, Westhorpe farmer David Barker reflects on how adept farmers are at dealing with all the weather has to throw at them

THE resilience of farmers and growers remains remarkably impressive after what can only be described as the most testing of years. We are at the mercy of the weather and we have to adapt, improvise and take well-informed decisions to make sure our crops and livestock grow and fulfil their potential.

That is what makes a career in farming so special, every day is different and every year has a twist to keep us on our toes! You could not sit back in 2012 and just farm the way you always had. This year more than any other showed the importance of modern, well-maintained machinery suitable for your farmed area, taking the best possible agronomy and business advice and having the support of dedicated, well trained staff members.

Our crops last spring looked full of potential and a bumper harvest was spoken about but then the ‘Hosepipe ban’ was enforced but someone forgot the tap in the sky as the heavens opened at the end of March and – well - the rain hasn’t relented since. The crops were under huge disease pressure because of the damp conditions and I cringed at the amount of money we were forced to spend in keeping our crops clear of diseases. Producing high quality crops involves a great deal of investment in crop protection products and fertiliser and with these a high level of expertise is required from the plant breeders, agronomists, soil scientists, chemical manufacturers, farm workers and the farmers. However the investment enabled us to produce decent yields with good quality which has allowed me to market wheat at levels never experienced before.

It is essential to have a good working relationship with your grain merchant. I never use pools or combined stores; I prefer to have the destiny of my business in my own hands. Having a son working for Nidera gives me an inbuilt advantage even though he is not allowed to trade with his dad!

The 2012 growing season was stop and start, rain hindered progress and this is when the investments in the right sized machinery and good staff paid dividends. Keeping up to date whenever conditions allowed was paramount. Today’s farm machinery is so advanced from what I started with back in the 1970s, when most tractors were either 35 or 65 horse power with no cabs, no radios, minimal suspension but equally long hours and hard work to get the operations done. Today I struggle with the technology of our 200hp tractors and this summer I had to call one of our employees from the other field to come help me set up the tractor’s computer just so I could bale hay while the weather permitted. Once the right settings were programmed and the correct button pressed everything went like clockwork. It reinforced the importance of educating and training the next generation of farmers and farm machine operators. The amalgamation of Otley College and Easton College will help and this winter we hosted over 100 students on the farm for a number of visits to inspire and educate them in the life of a modern farmer; but the industry has to attract the better, brighter candidates that will take Suffolk and the UK farming industry forward.

Farming is crying out for young entrepreneurs and enthusiastic new entrants who have the ability to learn the many skills needed to produce and market good food of the highest standard and deliver the answers to the age-old question of how will we feed the ever-growing World population?

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This question will never go away and we have all read the reports recently about how half of all food bought is actually thrown away as waste! This for me is very disheartening, knowing from my own and my fellow farmers’ experience over the years how much hard work, stress, sweat and sometimes tears have gone into growing this food only for half to be wasted. It is a very sad state of affairs. We should all look at our own food wastage, portion sizes, overstocking of the fridge and the dreaded supermarket ‘two for one’ offers that make us buy too much, and see if we can improve and change this. We should also where possible purchase from local butchers or farmers’ markets where horse meat cannot be disguised under a ‘value’ range label!

Looking forward UK farmers now are under more strain than ever before. The soil is saturated due to the wettest year on record, soil condition is being lost, input and fuel prices keep on rising and farmland is flooded meaning livestock is being fed on winter rations at an early stage. We are hearing reports of UK crop failure in some regions due to the weather and pests, something that is very rare in UK.

However here in the East we maybe faring a bit better but it will be a tricky 2013 if these conditions persist. I will be taking the correct and best advice in all areas of the business, keeping the machinery up to date with technology and making sure my staff is highly trained so when we get the chance we can crack on and do our bit to make sure there is food on the table.

It will be interesting to see how the EU negotiations surrounding the Common Agricultural Policy will affect our business. It is to the industry’s credit that some 70% of Suffolk farmers participate in Stewardship Schemes and they will be better placed to meet the changes ahead. I was heartened to learn that Kings have sold around 50 tons of wild bird seed to plant on farms to enhance wild bird populations.

I recently had the pleasure to help launch a remarkable report detailing Suffolk hedgerows.

Guy Ackers and his army of volunteers (around 2,400) have described in detail 45,000 hedgerows in 317 Suffolk parishes, more than half of the hedges are species rich which is a sound foundation for the future of the countryside.

Farming in this region may take a few knocks from time to time, has its fair share of volatility and is totally bound by the weather given to us but one thing is for sure we will do our best to make sure the food produced is of the highest standard. Most farmers will care for our countryside so the next generation of farmers and most importantly the general public can enjoy it in the years to come.