Farming Matters January 2023

Happy New Year! In farming and in life it is sometimes worth pausing and looking back to see if you have learnt anything from the past. It’s been a pretty exciting time with the weather over the last year, with record breaking temperatures in the summer and a lack of rain. The rainfall total is looking like being below average, but as I am penning this before the year end, I’m not completely sure yet. In January 2022, I wrote here that I had 3 wishes for the year. Let’s just look back at them and see how they turned out.

Wish number 1 was having some sort of food security element to any quick trade deals that might harm our home-grown producers. That was blown out of the water by the then trade minister, Liz Truss, who fixed deals with both Australia and New Zealand which will harm the long-term future of UK farmers.

Wish number 2, for the government to work with farmers to ensure sustainably produced, safe food, whilst at the same time protecting and enhancing the environment. We are still waiting, after DEFRA have missed several deadlines, for details of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) that will reward us for farming in a more sustainable way. What little we have learnt so far does not seem to cover the cost and is failing to get farmer support. It is rapidly becoming a missed opportunity to shape the way that previous production subsidies could be used to protect the environment and ensure a viable, home based farming industry.

Wish number 3 was for more normal weather, whatever that is. This was never going to come true, but at least I got the dry and sunny harvest I asked for, even if it was too hot.

Deciding what to wish for in 2023 has been a challenge, but here goes anyway.

Firstly, a rapid end to the war in Ukraine, although this seems pretty unlikely. Putin’s “special military operation” has been reprehensible. For the population of Ukraine it has been brutal and totally unjustified. With a spring offensive on the cards, it is going to drag on for sometime yet. The knock-on effect on the rest of the world, following on from Covid, has been a huge economic and social impact. Ukraine is one of the main suppliers of the world’s wheat and oilseeds. Grain which is unable to be exported and the resulting reduction in harvested commodities for 2022 has led to a spike in prices. The increase in gas prices has seen fertiliser more than treble in value, so farmers will cut back in 2023, which will lead to smaller crops worldwide.  Even if the war stopped today, the impact on rising food prices will continue throughout this year.

Secondly, our food processors and retailers need to balance their desire to make large profits with paying their suppliers a fair price. The never-ending price war between the likes of Tesco and the other major supermarkets, with the discounters such as Lidl and Aldi, might be good for consumers in the short term. However, one only needs to cast your mind back to the egg crisis to realise that we all lose out when farmers and growers stop production because they are making a loss.

Finally, a more stable government in what will be the last year of the present conservative rule. They have lost the support of farmers, according to various polls, who traditionally have voted for them. Getting the ELMS up and running might help win back some support, but after 12 long years I think a change is inevitable, if only it could come a little sooner than 2024 which is when the next election is due. I only hope our farming industry can wait that long.

Anyway, it’s January and the evenings are getting lighter. Next month will see us back in the fields with spring just around the corner. I can’t wait to see new life and the myriad of greens that herald the arrival of a new growing season. How lucky am I to live and work in our beautiful countryside.

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