Farmers play the waiting game
It’s the busiest time of the year for arable farmers in Suffolk and Essex – harvest.
For Guy Smith, owner of Wigboro Wick Farm, a 1,000 acre farm at St Oysth, near Clacton, this time of year is a waiting game.
“It’s like waiting for GCSE results, we have done all the hard work to get the crop to fruition and now it is time for the results,” he says.
The 55-year-old, a farmer for 30 years, has crops not just of wheat, but also linseed, oilseed rape, potatoes and beans, as part of the business’s arable operations.
And Guy’s already working on the farm’s combine harvester to make sure it’s ready for the busiest few weeks of the year.
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“We are harvesting wheat from the end of July, beans in mid August, linseed in late August and potatoes from July to October. We won’t know what the harvest is like until we start harvesting but on the combinable crops like wheat at the moment it looks middling to average. The quality looks OK, and protein levels look OK, but the yields don’t look so good. A lot depends on the soil conditions. We have had a dry year to date following a very wet autumn so the weather hasn’t really been to my liking,” he says.
Out in a field of wheat – a milling wheat variety called Skyfall - Guy takes a closer look by using the traditional method of rolling the ears of corn in his hands, imitating the threshing process. He then “winnows” – throwing a little up in the air - to separate the wheat from the chaff, inspects the grains and bites a few to assess the moisture content.
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As the swallows fly low over the crops feeding on the insects, Guy is reassured as he assesses the crop.
“It’s not yet ripe but a bit more sun and the moisture content will fall, the quality looks OK,” he says.
Guy, whose family have been farming in the area of generations, is also vice president of the National Farmers Union (NFU).
The organisation represents the interests of around 50,000 farm businesses equating to around 75% of commercial farming in England and Wales.
“We represent the interests of members to government at both national and European level and also to government bodies and organisations. I have always been interested in agricultural politics and as vice president I concentrate on issues such as pesticides, irrigation and support payments.”
Guy is currently undecided which way he will vote in an in-out referendum on European Union (EU) membership.
“Under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farmers are part of the Basic Payment Scheme which is a support payment, it is not a subsidy, of around £70-£80 per acre depending on the exchange rate. The key argument for this payment for my generation of farmers is there is huge volatility in the market place so prices of commodities such as wheat and potatoes can double and halve in quite short periods of time. This makes farming speculative. When you put a seed in the ground you have no idea what that commodity is going to be worth when you harvest it.
“Support payments take out some of that volatility, it keeps farmers farming and that has wider benefits to society in terms of sustained food production.”
Guy adds: “When Britain last farmed without government and support back in the 1930s we were 80% dependent on food imports. I think at the moment I am open to be persuaded of the merits of leaving the EU but I don’t think I am sure what those merits are just yet.
“The NFU is strictly apolitical and we would not suggest to members how to vote. However, the CAP equates of 46% of the whole EU spend and that makes it a hugely important policy, so the NFU needs to be involved in that debate. We will look to see in more detail what leaving will mean. Will there be a national rather than a European-wide agricultural policy? There may be advantages to that. How would export and trade be affected? For example, Britain exports 30% of its lamb to France. Would we have new trade deals with places such as South America? We would need a clear idea of what voting out would mean for farming.”
Guy points out that leaving the EU and the possibility of importing more food, as we do energy, might leave Britain strategically exposed.
“That may not be a problem, people may think that isn’t important. These are issues for all of us not just for farmers,” he says.
“I suspect a lot of farmers are undecided. I think farmers realise that while there are benefits to the CAP there is also a downside in terms of increasing regulation. It is not unknown to have a national agricultural policy and my parents’ generation were part of the deficiency payment scheme in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Guy exports crops to markets abroad in Belgium and Ireland.
“I am also conscious that both my great uncle and uncle both died in European conflict and my father and mother grew up with bombs dropping on them. The peace dividend is extremely important and cannot be overlooked,” he says.