Farming Insight: The ups and downs of East Anglia’s 2012 harvest

IF you ask an East Anglian farmer whether his 2012 harvest has been good or bad, prepare yourself for a long answer.

Last week, the National Farmers’ Union released the results of its own national survey of the harvest, which presented a complex picture of very poor wheat harvests, mixed results for barley and good yields of oilseed rape.

The headline-maker was the UK wheat yields, which plummeted to a low not seen since the 1980s as a summer of persistent and occasionally torrential rain took its toll on harvests and the quality of the crop.

In reality, of course, from farm to farm, and from field to field, some crops thrived and some failed. What’s clear though is that the extremities of the weather conditions presented many headaches - some of which farmers have become very adept at overcoming through the use of technology. Others, such as a lack of sunlight or warmth at vital points in the growing cycle, are beyond their skills to repair. There’s no instant remedy to a waterlogged field, and weakened crops become prey to disease.

Farmers in this region were less badly hit by the sort of weather which resulted in farm machinery getting stuck in fields which had been turned into muddy quagmires by the downpours. Some are reporting more positive results than the national picture, and even, in some cases, higher-than-average yields.

Different soil types helped or hindered them - light soils can take the rain but fare less well in drought and this was their year. In other, drier, years, it is the heavy soil land, able to hold moisture for longer, which prevails. Some benefited from very localised weather conditions.

In order to supply themselves with some stability in a constantly fluctuating situation, many farmers forward buy and forward sell their inputs and crops respectively. This shields them to a certain extent from the uncertainties of the market, and mixed signals on how crops were faring internationally may have caused some of them to make what turned out to be the wrong call.

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Failed harvests around the world, with severe drought across the United States and a heatwave in Russia, have meant good prices for crops - but there is the inevitable knock-on effect for livestock farmers and egg and poultry producers hit by high feed prices. These sectors are already feeling the squeeze from the other end as supermarkets continue to keep shop prices down.

John Collen, who farms on heavy soil at Gisleham, near Lowestoft, had a good harvest - which may go some way towards making up for the family’s sense of sadness at the closure of its dairy farming operation earlier this year after it slipped into the red. The problems dairy farmers have faced this year dealing with the effects of falling farm gate milk prices are well documented and his own feeling was that this situation was unlikely to improve any time soon.

John, who sits on the regional crop board at the National Farmers’ Union, admits the overall picture for crops across the region is “incredibly mixed”.

“It’s even worse than that because we actually had some quite good results on everything, but it’s a reversal of last year. Last year, the further east you went, the worse you got. This year, the further east you go, the better it gets.

“We didn’t have a bumper crop by any means but we were above our five year average.”

It was possible, he said, to draw a line down the A140 from Diss and detect two different stories on harvests. From that point eastwards, many farms did slightly better, and as you move east from Halesworth, enjoyed average to better than average yields. Further inland, the story was less positive, he says. His own crops not only did well on yields, but quality was “quite good”.

“You only have to go as far west as Diss and things start getting very poor,” he says.

“Last year we suffered through lack of rainfall. This year, we gained because we didn’t have as much as other regions. We still had a lot and in the spring we thought we would have a bumper crop. We didn’t because we didn’t have the sunshine.”

However, these circumstances were the exception, not the rule, and parts of the region did quite poorly, with some suffering up to a 50% drop in yields, he says.

“It’s a real mix and this year probably more than I can remember,” he says.

“Certainly, there are people who are within Suffolk who have not had a good harvest. Essex has been very poor. I have got a friend in Tilbury (in Essex) on very light land and they have had a very good year.

“We are not on light land at all but we are in the eastern strip that didn’t get quite as much rainfall as others. That’s all I can put it down to. I didn’t have a combine get stuck at all.”

John grows wheat, barley and oilseed rape. His wheat “doesn’t look as well as it might” but he hasn’t delivered anything below 73 bushel weight (bushel weight is a measure of the crop density, and 72 and above is considered good).

Prices have gone up, he admits, but he will start selling his harvest 2012 crop from October 2011, which means the full benefits of this aren’t felt at all by the farmer. For those whose yields were low, there was less of a crop left to sell into current, more lucrative markets, he points out.

“Every adviser, every piece of information there was suggested a good crop was being drilled and all the information we could get suggested there was going to be a good global crop. Every single farmer I know started selling at about �130 a tonne and on a five year average there was probably about 50% of the crop sold at around about �140 a tonne,” he says.

“The price today is probably about �190 a tonne.”

Meanwhile fertiliser costs have rocketed from about �280 last year to �320 this year, while diesel has also gone up from 60p a litre to 70p.

“As long as you end up with a profit and a reasonable return, that’s all we ask. This year we will do that.”

But he knows he is among the lucky ones. Farmers in other parts of the country are suffering.

“I know with several of them down south they are talking about two tonnes per acre average,” he says.

While they might have forward sold this at �140/150 a tonne, that price may have been slashed by �30 because of the poor quality of the crop, he explains.

Over at the Elveden Estate, near Thetford, farm manager Andrew Francis faced very mixed fortunes over his growing season.

“Our winter malting barley did very well, above average yields and quality was very good. The good thing about this year is it normally suffers from an early spring drought because it grows quite early in the season. Because it was wet it didn’t get that. We grow somer spring malting barley which did OK. It was probably very slightly above average but quality was very good but again, because of the amount of rain that helped in maximising its yields.

“In terms of wheat, we had a bit of a mixed bag. Yields were variable.”

He grew two main types of wheat, one of which was badly hig by conditions lasts autumn and suffered disease which limited its potential.

“Our late wheat our yields were very good,” he says. “Where we were different to other parts of the country was it was a light land year. But we were in the minority. Light land drains quite readily and roots can develop to their potential. Unusual for the eason but for us a good yield generally and exceptionally good quality.”

This has meant the estate has accessed markets for its wheat which are not usually available to it, but Andrew admits in this it is in a minority.

“We also grow a lot of rye for Ryvita and again that did well. Quality was good and yields were slightly above average.”

Vegetables, though, were a different swtory.

“We had a very tough year on vegetables,” he says. “Our early potatoes which went for processing for crisps and French fries were very light yields. They didn’t like the dull, cold, wet start they got so yields were 30% below average. Table-top and baking potatoes and specialist salad crops were a bit better story but probably about 15% below average on those crops.

“The one that’s given me the biggest headache is onions. It likes plenty of sunshine and sunlight. It didn’t really get any. It has been very late all year. We started harvest three weeks late and we are faced with crops that aren’t really mature. They have not grown to their full potential. We are having to harvest them because they are not going to progress any further. My warning for people who are buying onions is that potentially they could be short and it’s definitely going to be short on yields, and there’s a medium risk potential it won’t store very well.”

This will mean the UK will be reliant on early imports, he warns.

The estate also grows a large quantity of carrots and parsnips and they appear to have recovered enough from early setbacks to provide medium yields, but Andrew believes he will be “the wrong side of the budget” on onions and potatoes.

Spare a thought in all of this for the beleaguered livestock sector. Eggs, poultry and pork in particular have been feeling the effects of ever-rising feed prices, coupled with low shop prices for their produce.

Pig farmer Fergus Howie, of Wicks Manor farm, Tolleshunt Major, Maldon, who also processes meat and has his own on-farm butchery, admits this year has been a struggle.

“The pig farm as it stands has lost �25,000 over the last five months,” he says.

The problem is a combination of feed costs going up, but shop prices failing to go up with them. Imports from lower-welfare countries are keeping prices at an artificial low, he says.

“Ten years ago, terrible times like this is what got us to start our Wicks Manor brand,” he says.

“We need price increases. We need acceptance from the consumers and the retailers that prices are unrealistic. It puts into question our business.”

He predicts that if things stay as they are, no pig farmers in the country will be able to continue.

“Supermarkets are trying to keep pork products at an unrealistic low,” he says.

“The rest of the supply chain is losing so much money, it’s not going to be here in a year’s time. The more we can get that message out, the more the consumer will accept it, the more the supermarkets will accept it.”

Arthur Diaper, who runs Diaper Poultry, Haughley, with brothers John and David, says his sector is also feeling the squeeze, with increased feed and input prices, combined with downward pressure on prices.

“I think ‘squeezed middle’ applies to us,” he says. Diaper has three of its own poultry farms, and takes in chickens from six other local producers including Sutton Hoo free range chickens. The business takes in about 500 to 600 tonnes a month of finished diet for the birds, and in June the price of that moved up by �60 a tonne, although it has moved to about �10 lowers since then. Having bought forward until June of this year, it was only then that the full impact of the feed price increases were felt by his business. Added to this, the industry faces constantly regulatory demands to upgrade its plant and equipment, he says.

“And we are not getting any more for our product,” says Arthur.

According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) 2012 harvest survey:

Wheat: Yields are down 14.1% on five year average, from 7.8 to 6.7 tonnes per hectare. Area planted is up 3.8% on five year average, from 1.916 million hectares to 1.988 million hectares, meaning estimated production from the UK is down 11.1% on five year average, from 14.915 million tonnes to 13.250 million tonnes.

Winter Barley: Yields are up 1.6% on five year average, from 6.3 to 6.4 tonnes per hectare. Area is up 0.5% on five year average, from 389,000 hectares to 391,000 hectares, with estimated production up 0.6% on five year average, from 2.472 million tonnes to 2.486 million tonnes.

Spring Barley: Yields are down 7.4% on the five year average, from 5.4 to 5.0 tonnes per hectare. Area is down 1.2% on five year average, from 604,000 hectares to 597,000 hectares and estimated production down 9.1% on five year average, from 3.255 million tonnes to 2.958 million tonnes.

Oilseed Rape: Yields are up 5.9% on five year average, from 3.4 to 3.6 tonnes per hectare. Area is up 18.6% on five year average, from 639,000 hectares to 758,000 hectares with estimated production up 25.5% on five year average, from 2.196 million tonnes to 2.755 million tonnes.