As the Christmas decorations are returned to the loft and the tree is cast out to wait for recycling, it is a poignant moment as once again we head back into lockdown. Could this be the start of our own special groundhog day, where time stands still and we go round in an endless loop? Or should we break out of this melancholy, briefly look back to last year, then move on? That’s certainly what I am planning to do. Optimism all the way for 2021, but first….
2021 came in much like 2020 – wet! The River Thames spilled over and the crops on the flood plain were under water. The photo above was taken as the flooding was starting to recede. Just like last year, we are left with wheat still to establish and despite the cold north-easterly wind blowing, the soil is not likely to dry out anytime soon. Our 5 year average rainfall is 675mm. 2019 was 760mm, beaten by 2020 which clocked up 800mm. Reflecting back on last year, which must be one to forget for so many reasons, it seems hard to find the positives. Covid-19 made life a little more challenging, but on the whole we were able to carry on producing food to supply the shops, despite the reported shortages. I consider us very fortunate as an industry that we were able to keep going and my grateful thanks go to our suppliers and service partners who found ways to make sure that we could continue to operate. Also to Ian and Trevor our tractor drivers who always go the extra mile. Apart from the maize, harvest was pretty grim and all the crops were a long way below what they would normally yield, due to the appalling weather during the growing season. Going from a wet winter to a dry spring the crops really struggled. If this is the new normal then we need to find different ways to work, which I am already looking into.
There was not much to learn from last season, but making the system more resilient is the key lesson as Government support starts to wind down this year. It is worth bearing in mind that last harvest, the UK’s wheat yield was 40% lower than normal. In Argentina this year, they have food inflation partly due to Covid-19, but also because of a much smaller maize harvest. In the past, the EEC as it was then, introduced subsidies to help control just this scenario, to keep food costs under control and in part to protect rural economies. Is this really the time to start running down our agricultural industry whilst having to compete with foreign imports, often grown to much lower standards? At least Brexit will allow us to supply our nearest market without tariffs, but even here the devil is in the detail which we are still unsure about. On the farm we have strived over the last few years to prepare our business for this moment and have reduced our costs accordingly. However, we cannot fully budget for the difficult years such as 2020. We may well have got a higher price for a smaller heap of grain this time, but that will not always be the case.
We farmers are an optimistic bunch. Who else would set out 12 months in advance to produce something to sell not knowing what one of the main inputs would do? I am talking about the weather and now more than ever we will need to be prepared for more extreme events. Climate change is real and we all have a part to play. We are reducing our carbon footprint on the farm and I have made the pledge to join the NFU in aiming for net zero by 2040. Whilst I don’t have a problem with people going meat free, doing it to save the planet is just so wrong. The UK has a sustainable, grass fed livestock system. The same cannot be said for cutting down rainforests to grow soya and almonds to produce milk substitutes etc. Neither can the wonder food avocado, which needs 283lts of water to grow just 1kg, be sustainable. Those who want to make a difference can cut down on meat, but mostly leave the car at home and take less trips in an airplane.
So stay positive. We will all get through this and come out fighting to make the country a better place for our children. 2021, bring it on.