Rains 'catastrophic' for grain harvest

FARMERS have a reputation, sometimes well founded, for making gloomy pronouncements suggesting all is lost.

However, even neutral observers who have seen the damage that the recent torrential rains have inflicted on the Borders and parts of East Lothian are appreciating the scale of the disaster that has hit arable farmers at the most crucial time of the year.

Jim McLaren, president of NFU Scotland, was visibly shocked by a tour of four farms near Kelso and Jedburgh. He said: "The effect of this summer's heavy rains on the farms I visited has been absolutely catastrophic.

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"It has come at such a crucial time for farmers who should be harvesting and sowing just now. Indeed, the majority of Scottish farmers have only brought in half of their harvest and in many cases what has been brought in is of much poorer quality because it has been so wet.

"Following last weekend's particularly intense rains, farmers in some areas have now received half of their annual rainfall in the last 40 days. Some even had over five inches in 48 hours."

Just supposing some sort of a salvage operation can be mounted, the grain quality – both wheat and malting barley – will be well short of the specifications demanded by the trade. Merchants report an abnormally high level of rejections, despite the fact that farmers signed contracts. Splitting is the problem with barley, while sprouting in the ear is the issue with wheat.

But it's not just cereal crops that are suffering. McLaren said: "On one of the farms I visited there were acres of potatoes under water with a consequential loss likely to be in the region of 5,500 per acre. Vegetable crops have also been destroyed.

"But there are infrastructure problems as well, with entire bridges and farm roads being washed away. This means that even where crops can be salvaged, there may be no access to the fields, as is the case at Morebattle where the combine cannot reach the fields because the bridge has been destroyed."

Farmers are now concerned that they could lose out on their single farm payment cheques – the regime that replaced all previous support measures in 2005.

The regulations require farmers to be "cross-compliant" with a range of environmental and husbandary measures. Huge combines struggling through acres of mud are decidedly non-cross-compliant. McLaren is urging the Scottish Government to take a "light touch" in the implementation of these regulations.

It would appear that will be the case, especially following the announcement by Westminster that common sense will prevail and that farmers will have a derogation for the better part of four weeks.

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Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, said: "I am very well aware of the problems that farmers are facing in many parts of the country in getting in the harvest after all the heavy rain, and the prohibition of using heavy machinery on waterlogged soil is likely to make the difficulties even worse.

"In the light of this, and following representations from the NFU (England and Wales] and others, I have decided to lift this restriction until 4 October. We need to do all we can to help the harvest and I hope this decision will go some way to assist farmers who have been most affected."

It is a racing certainty that Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet secretary for rural affairs at Holyrood, will follow suit, though no formal announcement has yet been made.

The ultimate irony is that while the UK is enduring one of the worst harvests for many years, the rest of the world is enjoying bumper yields. The Paris-based Strategie Grains has predicted that the EU wheat crop will hit 144 million tonnes, up by 2.2 million tonnes in 2007.

However, what happens in North America is the ultimate decider for global trends and prices. The US Department of Agriculture has been progressively raising its forecasts of how much the farmers of the plains will gather in this year.

The latest forecast is that the US wheat crop will be up by at least 8 per cent. But of more importance, the world wheat crop is set to hit a new record of 664.2 million tonnes, which would be 55.3 million tonnes above last year's. The sad reality for UK farmers is that a drop in their production will have only a minimal impact on international trade.