Thursday 18th November was a black day for wildlife-friendly farmers, as FWAG went into administration after being the largest supplier of environmental advice to the agriculture sector for the last 42 years. They supported the greatest number of agri-environment scheme applications of any organisation across the UK, and they leave a big hole in the capacity for environmental advice provision to farmers. The press coverage cited the impact of government spending cuts on environmental funding as being a major contributing factor.
The sad demise of FWAG, raises questions about how farmers can access good, impartial advice to enable them to improve the environment on their farms and help ensure the government achieves its ambitions for the farmed countryside. We believe that there is an important role for Defra and its agencies in setting out the framework for farm advice to ensure both quality and universality of environmental advice for farmers. This should not be left entirely to the market.
During the last half-century there have been changes in the way we understand ‘development’ - what it promises, the obstacles to accomplish it and the ways to achieve it. Most important is the role that public and private sectors should play to accelerate it.
For some time, the main contribution made by agriculture to the economic and social development has not received due recognition, but in the 60’s, Dr. Norman Borlaug committed himself to ending hunger. He started a revolution: a ‘Green Revolution’ to find a way to increase the crop yields on any given piece of land through technological innovation. Increases in production was achieved by creating high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, supply of hybridized seeds, and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
The process of agricultural modernization has led to significant progress in overall agricultural production. However it has had very asymmetric effects in rural societies, particularly when we observe the levels of income and productivity of small traditional farmers compared to those dedicated to industrial agriculture. With modern farm machinery and less labour needed, farm sizes have increased as higher productivity can be achieved. Many small and medium sized farms are less lucrative and have been forced to seek out other ways of achieving a return from their land. In the words of Olivier De Schutter, (United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food), “ If increases in food production rise in tandem with further marginalization of small-scale farmers in developing countries, the battle against hunger and malnutrition will be lost.”
Today global agriculture has multiple roles, among which it is often difficult to balance. As well as ensuring food security of the world population and a means of livelihood for millions of people, it must also provide ecosystem services to the environment, serve as a carbon sink and meet future demands of biofuels and bioplastics. Clearly, the nature of agriculture and food production has moved from a traditional model, based on household production for local and national markets, to an 'agri-food system’ with a global reach.
Agriculture is not just an ordinary economic activity but a particular one which needs to increasingly invest more in biodiversity. Biodiversity contributes to maintaining the productive capacity of the soil, preventing erosion, salinisation and sedimentation. It also plays an important role in maintaining the cycles and balance of ecosystems and the control of pests and diseases. We shouldn’t keep turning our heads away and recognise that the water we drink and the air we breathe is the product of natural cycles that are performed by biodiversity.
The exceptionally dry conditions in eastern England have continued through harvest and crop establishment. This has made crop management easier in some ways but much more difficult in others. Easier in that all our crops were harvested dry thereby avoiding additional drying costs, more difficult in that timing of crop drilling became very problematic and crop growth has been slow.
Harvest went well. Our oil-seed rape was harvested at the end of July with an average yield of 2.9 tonnes/ha. This may be below the national average but as we use the autocast method of establishment we expect slightly lower yields. However, due to savings on establishment costs our gross margin is still quite reasonable at approximately £584/ha.
Wheat was harvested in the first week of August, one of the earliest harvest dates ever here. In contrast to the oil-seed rape our yields were affected by the drought conditions with a disappointing average yield of 8.6tonnes/ha. We use a variety called Scout here which is a soft milling wheat used for biscuit making. This variety was chosen as it is resistant to damaging attacks by insect pests, but as a result does have a yield penalty. Sales are still ongoing, but so far we have been selling at approximately £172/tonne which is very pleasing.
The spring beans were disappointing yet again. Despite changes in establishment methods we continually struggle to produce acceptable yields of this crop. This years crop was affected by the drought, but much worse was the aphid infestation that decimated many pods and plants. We did harvest about 90 tonnes, which was better than feared, but as things stand the economics of cropping spring beans here are marginal at best. However the biodiversity benefits and the considerable savings on fertiliser inputs over our 4-year cropping cycle, and hence reduced greenhouse gas emissions, for us balance this poor financial return. This is under constant review though.
Crop establishment started during harvest. Cultivations in the fields started very quickly after oil-seed rape harvest and our oil-seed rape for harvest 2012 was broadcast into the standing wheat crop just prior to harvest. Initially the oil-seed germinated and grew quickly, but signs of stress soon began to show through nutrient and water deficiencies. Instead of healthy and luscious green plants we had yellow and purple leaved plants. Never a good sign. However, the root systems are good and after a little rain in early November the plants have perked up and are now green again. We’re confident that this slow development won’t be carried over to poor yield next July.
The battle against blackgrass delayed drilling of our wheat. Blackgrass is a pernicious grass weed that if allowed to grow unchecked can severely reduce wheat yields. The armoury of chemicals that can be used to combat this has been reduced in recent years through stiffer regulations. On top of this ‘our’ blackgrass has become resistant to many of the remaining chemicals so part of our control relies on effectively dealing with flushes of this grass before drilling the wheat. A lack of rain during September delayed blackgrass germination and the wheat wasn’t drilled until 5th October. As I write this though the wheat is developing well and our skylark plots are easily identifiable in the fields.
So all we need now is rain, and lots of it. Come on Scotland, Ireland and Wales – share your rain with us soon!