Farming comment: Problems lurk beneath despite the calm on the surface
The early morning sun was slanting across the countryside and where it hit the straw bales it cast long shadows. The scenery could have won a dozen photographic competitions, but I just enjoyed the autumn landscape.
Superficially all seemed well and it was hard to think that only hours previously, at Kelso tup sales, a well-known and respected farm manager told me that 2012 had been the most difficult year he could remember. He is not a man given to exaggeration.
When I looked more closely, yes, I could see the deep combine tracks made in the soft wet ground; the steep nips where the harvest had to be taken one way and the odd boggy bit of headland where nothing had been harvested at all; the deeply rutted tramlines where sprayers had battled through trying to keep fungal diseases away throughout the wet sunless summer.
And the fields still to be taken in were not the golden colour associated with harvest. They were more a dull lifeless grey, memorably described as not having ripened, just died.
I did not see the heaps of harvested grain in store; some 15 per cent to 20 per cent smaller than usual I am told, and much of it waiting for an expensive trip through the drier. Nor will I see the delivery notes where deductions are made for not meeting bushel weights and nor will I hear the heated discussions between buyer and seller arising from this failure to provide the agreed specification.
My simplistic view of the countryside was by now quite tainted, so I thought instead of the sheep farmers who had made their annual pilgrimage to Kelso to buy a ram or two.
Again, anyone just looking at the headline figures would think the sheep sector was doing well. A sale average within a few pounds of last year’s record level was surely an indicator of that. At just under £3 million of trading, there was a record amount of cash changing hands and a record number of tups going to new homes.
An early morning wander around the Springwood Park sale field saw more sale information than I can remember, with breeders moving in – albeit slowly – on performance figures and breeding values.
As the sale progressed, auctioneers staggering off after their spell on the rostrum would repeat that well-known saying: “Good sheep were easy to sell, poorer types were difficult to cash.”
So again all would appear to be well, but then I caught up with someone who has seen more ups and downs in the sheep industry than most. He indicated he was not worried by the travails of the sector such as the electronic identification of sheep, nor indeed by diseases such as scab or fluke now rampaging through the sector.
His worries were in the marketplace, with this country in a long recession and a fair percentage of people now no longer able to afford lamb chops; a land where food banks are being set up to help feed the poor. He talked of lamb being bought by the older generation who still cooked food rather than just heated it up, and what long-term future was there for a product whose main consumers are in the latter stages of life.
We talked also of the news that had just emerged of the debacle at Ramsgate docks where a patently unfit livestock lorry had caused the deaths of dozens of sheep being exported to France. It has been some time since the anti-live export activists have made their presence felt, but if ever they needed a trigger this was it. Forget the fact that the lorry was owned and operated by a French company, that fact does not register with those who want the trade stopped.
Even the carcass trade to Europe – economically much more important to the UK sheep industry – caused my source concern. Major lamb-buying countries such as Spain were in the economic doldrums, and again the purchase of lamb for the evening meal might be an investment too far.
By now my mood was definitely downbeat. To cheer myself up I thought about producers getting a better price for their milk. How surprised was I that two major buyers decided they could after all pay more for their milk, and that they could both introduce the increase on the same day?
The answer to my question is “not a bit” as the rumours were there, as was a threat of mass resignations in supply if they did not. Do not be surprised if there are repercussions in the future.
So though the headline prices are strong, remember that not far beneath the surface problems remain.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East