View of modern agriculture worth shouting about

YOU might remember a Not The Nine O#Clock News sketch. In it, Mel Smith is reporting against a background of roaring traffic and a plane take-off, bawling along the lines of “I could have reported this in a normal voice from a comfortable studio, but instead I’m stuck here shouting my b******* off so that we can take pictures.”

Fordyce Maxwell. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Fordyce Maxwell. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

That sketch flickers across my mind every time Gregg Wallace appears on TV. Never for long, as I press mute or off. But no matter how fast my reactions there are always a few seconds of “Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!” and my response of “no, it’s only a cookery show, you …”

But, after three Harvest 2013 programmes last week, I have a moderately-revised opinion of Wallace’s market-trader approach. Helped by the calming influence of Philippa Forester, the pair gave BBC2 viewers as positive a view of farmers and farming as I’ve seen.

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It’s not the farming those of us of a certain age grew up with, but the programmes and the dynamic duo showed, entirely to my satisfaction, that there is much to admire in the scientific, technological, modern approach of the best farmers and growers.

It’s always going to be tough to meet supermarket specifications at the price retailers want to pay, hence the never-ending struggle to compete against imports to supply shoppers who don’t much care where it comes from as long as the price is right. But the crops produced were impressive, as were the management and technical skills, attention to detail, some of it close to obsessive, and the enthusiasm of the farmers featured.

The first programme was about potatoes and vegetables. Cameras had visited the main farm several times over 12 months and we were reminded several times of what a hellish year 2012 was, the wettest in 100 years.

Growers trying to recover was a theme of the second and third programmes, on grain and oilseed, then soft fruit and tree fruit. It left the lay viewer with no illusions about what trying to cope with bad weather is like for farmers.

Nor was this year easy – a miserable first two or three months then one of the coldest Aprils on record, followed by one of the hottest, sunniest, driest Julys. By then, of course, farmers were looking for rain.

But by August, grain growers in particular simply wanted the sunshine to continue as against almost all predictions harvest turned out not too badly. Wheat yields were almost average, which – considering drilling conditions last autumn and a cold spring – was a good result. Oilseed rape that survived produced patchy results – much was so poorly established that it was pulled out and land left fallow or re-drilled with a spring crop of some sort – but a much bigger than usual acreage of spring barley has yielded relatively well and is good quality. How that will shake out with the malting trade is another matter.

Potato crops so far are fair to good, but a problem for vegetable and fruit growers, particularly those trying to meet supermarket contracts, was that the peculiar growing season meant ripening and maturity was concertinaed. This phenomenon is well known to gardeners trying to palm off bags of courgettes, tomatoes and plums to friends and relatives, but specialist growers are usually much better organised.

How they coped made fascinating television, not least the resigned, but efficient, way in which over-mature crops simply had to be chopped up and ploughed in, the farmer taking the loss. The “That’s life, move on,” reaction was a lesson to us all – not forgetting that throughout all three programmes the word “subsidy” wasn’t heard. There are common agricultural support mechanisms underpinning grain and oilseed, but nil or next to it for potatoes, vegetables, rasps, strawberries, cherries or apples.

No coincidence that the most-innovative sectors of farming such as those mentioned above, along with pigs and poultry, are not subsidised. The balance is between the farmer’s skills and enthusiasm, the market and the weather, not to mention supermarket cupidity, global crop results and a skilled labour force.

At one level that applies to regular staff using £250,000 machines that micro-manage different areas of a field, at another finding workers prepared for hard physical labour for a reasonable return to pick fruits. It was no surprise, but as ever depressing, to find that almost all such workers are Eastern Europeans.

It was the only downside of a trio of programmes that showed farmers “at their best”? Thanks, Gregg.