Michaelmas, 29th September, is the turn of the farming year. Harvest is over, all is safely gathered in, and thoughts turn to the seasons to come. Farm tenancies start and end at Michaelmas with a half year rent due. The other half is due on Lady Day, 25th March. Whilst farmers plan for many seasons ahead, nevertheless it is a time to review those plans and make appropriate adjustments.
The harvest just completed has been little short of a disaster with many farmers saying it has been the worst for forty years, since the drought summer of 1976 to be precise. This will cause severe cash flow problems and may, for some, be the straw that broke the camel’s back. In the meantime, are there lessons to be learned?
For the arable farmer, is there any point in trying to grow oilseed rape? Since the ban on neonicotinoid seed dressing, it has been very difficult to establish without cabbage stem flea beetle decimating the crop. Many had to be written off, a recurring event over several years. It is a break crop in the sense it is not a cereal but it is not a restorative crop, it diminishes rather than enhances soil fertility.
So, if not oilseed rape, what can be grown to break the run of cereals and lessen the stranglehold of blackgrass and other problem weeds? Legumes and pulses have the advantage of nitrogen fixation and boost soil fertility but peas and beans are inconsistent and not reliably profitable. Two to three year clover leys are ideal but that involves grazing livestock which brings further problems. Many farmers are growing crops for anaerobic digestion plants, maize or winter rye. Neither is a restorative crop, both are cereals, but at least rye is cut before blackgrass seeds which can help with control.
Overhanging all like the Sword of Damocles is the increasing likelihood of a tumultuous secession from the European Union without a trade deal. This will hit all sectors but none more than sheep farming. Some 40% of lambs born in this country are exported to the continent, particularly France, and trading under WTO rules would attract a tariff of up to 50%. This would have a devastating impact on the value of sheep meat.
Autumn is the time when ewe flocks are prepared for the lambing season next year. Having been weaned in summer and kept short of grass to dry up the milk, ewes are now on good pasture to encourage ovulation and flush eggs for fertilization. Mid-October is the time to turn out the rams with the ewes for traditional lambing from mid-March. But will those lambs have sufficient value to make the process worthwhile?
Beef is in a similar position, not least because the meat trade is integrated across national borders, particularly that with the Irish Republic. Live animals, carcasses and joints may cross the border several times before the meat ends up on the supermarket counter, a process that will be severely disrupted by the potential lack of a trade deal.
Dairy farmers have gone through hard times in recent years but liquid milk is not traded internationally in any great volume. So they should survive, whilst pig production might even benefit from tariffs.
The well-known agricultural economist and former Chief Economist at the NFU, Sean Rickard has warned recently that at least one third of farmers will go out of business within five years if there is not a trade deal with the European Union. Most at risk are the small and medium sized family farms that find it difficult to spread fixed costs. Most of these are unprofitable without the Basic Payment, especially after this year’s harvest, and will struggle to survive as it is withdrawn.
Those that can have diversified into other activities, particularly converting redundant buildings and letting them for commercial or residential use. That brings significant income but is not possible for some in more remote areas and may not be easy for tenants. I have heard of one estate that has granted a temporary 28% reduction in rent for one tenant to help him survive.
The other option is nature conservation, either planting woodland or cover crops. But even here there is great uncertainty. True, Countryside Stewardship has improved since the disaster of its launch but attention has now switched to ELM, the Environmental Land Management scheme. However, that will not start until 2024 at the earliest and we still have very little idea of the options or, more importantly, the rates of grants.
I am glad that I am no longer a farmer and having to take these decisions. If I were and had the support of my bank, I would probably carry on and hope for an improved future. I would not grow rape but perhaps have a year of restorative cover crops instead, picking up Stewardship grants where available. It would be extremely helpful if new grants were introduced to incentivise the improvement of soil health and fertility.
Where there is grass, there needs to be grazing animals so there is little option but to continue with beef and sheep. There are those who advocate far less meat in the diet and would rewild the land no longer required for the ruminant livestock but that does not help to pay the bills. To quote the phrase made popular a year or two ago, ‘it is hard to be green when you’re in the red!’