Thriplow Farms Annual Report XLV – 2018: I want to live like common people

Back in the dim and distant past, I spent the best part of a year ‘working’ on a farm not too far from Cape Town. The farm consisted of 6,000 acres of almost pure soft sand – the kind you might find on an exclusive beach on the Mediterranean coast – which just about supported the growing of wheat, sheep and cattle in their very dry climate. This was back when my interest in farming could be counted on the fingers of zero hands, and so I spent most of my time helping out elsewhere, mostly with the guest house that was also part of the operation. Whilst I never learnt anything at all about agriculture, I did pick up other highly useful skills, in particular an appreciation for G&Ts.

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WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, December/January 2018

Autumn drilling has gone well, with rain at just the right times to keep the seedbeds nice and moist, but not too sticky. At the start of November we lifted our first field of sugar beet, next to Fowlmere. This crop has looked poor all year, and although we don’t yet know the yield, the pile of beet in the field looks worryingly small. A small consolation has come from the fact it was harvested in relatively dry conditions, which limits the damage caused by the huge, 60 tonne, harvesters. Within 24 hours of the field being cleared, we had it drilled with wheat, which turned out to be excellent timing, as there was an unexpected deluge over the weekend which followed – one which would have prevented any work on the field for at least a week. We now have one more field of beet to harvest, and re-plant with barley, and that will be most of the work done for 2018. So instead of waffling about the farm does over winter, I thought I would publish an abridged version of an article I wrote last month instead:

The hot topic this month seems to be whether, after Brexit, we should allow imports of food made using techniques that are outlawed for UK producers. Several months ago that centred on hormone fed beef, and chlorinated chickens. More recently, perhaps due to farmers thinking about flea beetles and aphids, we are talking about neonicotinoid seed dressings, which have been banned in the EU.

So now, when we think how we would like UK agriculture to look in a few years, the very obvious point has been made that having decided that neonicotinoids are not safe for use here, isn’t it morally wrong to import food from other countries that is produced using them? The logic is so strong that even the RSPB and NFU are singing from the same song sheet. Even more bizarrely, I too agree with both of them, and would strongly support imports to be required to meet our own standards. There’s really just one problem with the whole thing though:

It’s never, ever going to happen.

How can I say this with such certainty? Easy – just look at any one of a thousand examples of asymmetrical regulations to be found happening right this second. How about labour laws? It’s not difficult to find cheap clothes on the high street, and why are they cheap – because they are made by kids in the far east, something that would never be permitted here. It’s not just poor countries though, look at anything imported from the US. They have zero days mandatory annual leave, and zero days maternity leave – neither of which is legal in the UK. OK, I can hear you thinking – but isn’t that different to polluting the environment, as neonicotinoids are supposed to do? Anyone who owns a smartphone can’t really complain about this; they full of rare earth minerals that are often mined with terrible pollution effects. Just Google ‘yttrium mining pollution” and see what comes up. Perhaps most damning of all, is that we already import thousands of tonnes of food produced with pesticides that we are not allowed to use – paraquat or any number of different GMOs would be good examples. Somewhat amusingly, many of the farmers who voted a few years back to leave a huge trading bloc with aligned standards are the same ones who now complain that we may have deal with countries using different standards. What a shock!

At the end of the day we don’t really need to look abroad, or on the internet, we need to look at our own lives: I’ve just written the above on an American computer, made in China. The clothes I’m wearing come from God-knows-where, but certainly not the UK. My car is German, and my supper will be Japanese. With the possible exception of the last point, I’m no different to so many farmers in the UK. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have this choice, whilst compelling everyone else in the country to buy our produce (or something else made to the same standards), and to probably pay a premium for it? Too right it would! But can we do that without being massive hypocrites? I’m not so sure.

The Hypocrisy Economy

Here’s a column I wrote recently, which I’m too impatient to wait and see in the Farmers Guardian:

We’ve all (hopefully) read the new agriculture bill. We’ve all (probably) heard Michael Gove talking about how great UK agriculture is going to be, and what high standards we will continue to have. And we have all definitely thought about what will happen to our businesses after Brexit, as the threat of unlimited imports in our own sector looms large. The hot topic this month seems to be whether we should allow imports of food made using techniques that are outlawed for UK producers. Several months ago that centred on hormone fed beef, and chlorinated chickens. More recently, perhaps due to farmers thinking about flea beetles and aphids, we are talking about neonicotinoid seed dressings. Personally, I’ve never used these on cereals, but did on oilseed rape until a few years ago, and always have on our sugar beet, but many people rely (or at least think they do) on this chemistry to protect their crops. It’s now fairly clear – for better or worse – we’ve seen the back of this particular technology in Europe.

So now, when we think how we would like UK agriculture to look in a few years, the very obvious point has been made that having decided that neonicotinoids are not safe for use here, isn’t it morally wrong to import food from other countries that is produced using them? The logic is so strong that even the RSPB and NFU are singing from the same song sheet. Even more bizarrely, I too agree with both of them, and would strongly support imports to be required to meet our own standards. There’s really just one problem with the whole thing though:

It’s never, ever going to happen.

How can I say this with such certainty? Easy – just look at any one of a thousand examples of asymmetrical regulations to be found happening right this second. How about labour laws? It’s not difficult to find cheap clothes on the high street, and why are they cheap – because they are made by kids in the far east, something that would never be permitted here. It’s not just poor countries though, look at anything imported from the US. They have zero days mandatory annual leave, and zero days maternity leave – neither of which is legal in the UK. OK, I can hear you thinking – but isn’t that different to polluting the environment, as neonicotinoids are supposed to do? Anyone who owns a smartphone can’t really complain about this; they full of rare earth minerals that are often mined with terrible pollution effects. Just Google ‘yttrium mining pollution” and see what comes up. Or how about the graphite used in all our rechargeable batteries? Same story. Perhaps most damning of all, is that we already import thousands of tonnes of food produced with pesticides that we are not allowed to use. Paraquat would be a good example – and we haven’t even touched on the GM soya that is fed to so many of our pigs and chickens. Somewhat amusingly, many of the farmers who voted a few years back to leave a huge trading bloc with aligned standards are the same ones who now complain that we may have deal with countries using different standards. What a shock!

At the end of the day we don’t really need to look abroad, or on the internet, we need to look at our own lives: I’ve just written the above on an American computer, made in China. The clothes I’m wearing come from God-knows-where, but certainly not the UK. My car is German, and my supper will be Japanese. With the possible exception of the last point, I’m no different to so many farmers in the UK. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have this choice, whilst compelling everyone else in the country to buy our produce (or something else made to the same standards), and to probably pay a premium for it? Too right it would! But can we do that without being massive hypocrites? I’m not so sure.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, November 2018

The problem with not writing a column for September is that I have to cram all of harvest into the October space, and that doesn’t leave room to talk about all the drilling we are doing at that time. So rewind the clock back to the beginning of August – just after harvest had finished on the 3rd. Nowadays we like to plant our oilseed rape as early as possible as soon as July is done and dusted. This year was an ideal opportunity to get it in the ground at the perfect time, with one major exception: the soil was drier than a desert. There is not a lot of point in putting seeds into dust, as they will either sit there and do nothing, or even worse, they may germinate and then die if rain doesn’t come quickly enough. So we sat on our hands for a week or so, and luckily the rain did come. Once the decision had bene made it took around 5 days to get 160 hectares planted, which went fairly smoothly aside from the usual temperamental nature of our oilseed rape drill causing a few headaches. The worst of these involved me “drilling” 7ha of a field late on a, very wet, Saturday night, only to find out a week later that I had not actually put any seed into the ground. Luckily we noticed quickly, and were in time to redo it. This year we have slightly changed the mix of plants that we grow alongside the rapeseed, so there is also vetch, buckwheat, and fenugreek, all of which will either die off over the winter, or be killed off by us in the spring. Once again we have managed to avoid problems with the dreaded Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle, and so the crops remain insecticide free, which is one of my big goals for the farm.

Until a few years ago, we used to start drilling wheat from the second half of September onwards. More recently we have started to delay this by somewhere between one and five weeks, which gives us better weed control, and reduces the likelihood that we will have to use insecticides to control aphids. The tradeoff is that you do risk worse drought tolerance in the spring, which is a real concern on our farm. This year we started off on the lightest land at the end of September, and have moved at a relaxed pace from the southern end of the farm going northwards. The plan will be to finish drilling in the month of October, the last fields being either beans in Barrington, or perhaps a field of wheat to the south of Thriplow which has had a particularly bad black grass problem over the last decade. Hopefully we are getting on top of it now, and this extra-late drilling with be the coup de grace for that particular weed. Of course, after this we must plant wheat and barley following sugar beet, lifted in November and December, and when it gets that late in the year, we are really in the lap of the Gods. I may have to pray a lot next month.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, October 2018

It has certainly been an interesting summer: in some ways terrible, in other ways excellent. Harvest started quite early – July 15th – which is probably four or five days before normal. What made this summer truly extraordinary was the speed at which we managed to get the crops in from that point onwards. Normally there is a slow progression from one crop type to another, and from the lighter soils in the south of the farm to the heavier soils in the north. Not so in 2018, where the fierce heat and hot winds dried everything out at records speeds. 

Some crops are particularly vulnerable to this, and so we were having to start cutting oilseed rape at 5am so that it had picked up some moisture from the overnight dew, and was wet enough to be accepted by our buyers. They will not take anything less than 6% moisture content, as it becomes too difficult to extract the oil, but luckily we only had to make couple of early starts. At least with oilseed rape we get paid a bonus for dry crops, as there is more oil per tonne of seed; with everything else, we are paid the same price, and so when the moisture content goes down, so does the weight – meaning the value to us also decreases. This is a bit unfair since our buyers adjust the moisture to what they want, and get to take all of the value we have lost. Perhaps one day someone like the National Farmers Union can come up with a new type of contract which evens out these imbalances?

The actual harvest results were mixed. Because conditions in the spring had been good, but then we had the dry and hot spell for so long, the crops which did best were those that matured soonest, as they had the least growing time in drought conditions. The best crop was oilseed rape, which is the first time in perhaps five years that it has performed really well. Wheat, our mainstay, was around 10-15% down on an average year, which was reasonable given the circumstances. Peas, which are usually cut in the middle of August, were ready in the middle of July, and were predictably terrible. Rye, barley and oats were all a bit down on where we would have liked, but similar to the wheat. The real frustration was knowing that one proper rain in June probably would have turned this below-par harvest into a record breaker. However, the real upside to harvest 2018 was that it finished on August 3rd, roughly a month ahead of normal. I often say that the worst thing about my job is always having to work for the whole of August. Not this year though, and I loved it!

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, August 2018

Last month I talked about falling at the final hurdle. The hurdle came, and we crashed straight into it. June 2018 was actually even drier than the famous June of 1976, when crops died, hosepipes were banned, and the country baked. Luckily we are not so badly off this time, as from October 1975 to June 1976 there was around 190mm of rain in Cambridge, whereas in the same period this year we have had double that – so the ground water reserves were significantly higher.

We are currently still waiting to start harvest, as we do not have any winter barley, and the oilseed rape is stubbornly remaining just a little bit too wet to cut. I have sold most of this crop to be collected next week (it’s Thursday now), so I’ve very much got my fingers crossed that we start before the weekend. Having been optimistic about he oilseed rape yield all year, we are now at crunch time, and I’m getting nervous as to whether it lives up to expectations. The hot weather has really brought forward harvest quite significantly for the later crops, and as soon as the rapeseed is finished we will be straight into one of wheat, rye or peas. The peas in particular have suffered badly, on light land, and are looking to be ready some 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule. This is not a good sign, and coupled with a bad pea moth infestation (due to faulty moth traps, which we use to know if there is a problem that needs treating), I am glad we only have a very small acreage of peas. 

Back in 1976 the wheat harvest was a disaster, with yields of around half of average. I don’t think we will be that bad this year, but we are unlikely to beat our 5 year average of around 9 tonnes per hectare. Probably the worst looking crop is our winter beans. In the middle of June they looked excellent, with a good amount of pods set on the bottom of the plant, and the top half still flowering. Unfortunately the lack of rain, the high temperatures, have ensured that literally none of those flowers have formed pods – limiting our yield to perhaps half of what it could have been. The sugar beet looks relatively good, but it does desperately need water as well, as will the oilseed rape and cover crops that we will plant at the start of August. But first let’s keep it dry for a week, so we can get the first part of harvest finished.

WTFIH @ Thriplow Farms, July 2018

I’ve been away for most of the time since I wrote the last column here, first a family holiday, and then a trip to Russia and Ukraine to look at farms. It’s been an interesting ten days – I’m writing this in Kiev airport waiting to fly back to Gatwick – starting off right in the south near Georgia, before taking a 3,000km loop up through Rostov, Kursk, Kiev and then finally to Odessa. We’ve skirted the war zone, but there are plenty of tanks moving about in Ukraine on training exercises. This region, around the Black Sea, is really important as it produces a large amount of wheat, some 45 millions tonnes of which is exported into the world market. That means that the size of their harvest has a huge impact on grain prices – much more than whatever happens in the UK. 

For the last few months there has been a drought, and prices have been moving ever upwards as a result. Obviously this is great news for me, and we have sold wheat for over £150 per tonne for the first time in four years. However, having spent time here and talked to the farmers, I’m not sure if maybe the fears have been slightly overplayed; it just doesn’t seem all that dry, and harvest is about to start. This wasn’t the main reason for the trip though, I really came to see how they manage to grow wheat so cheaply. The answer is not exactly what I expected; the actual standard of farming is generally not very special, and attention to detail is fairly limited. What they do manage very well is using old, small machinery much more efficiently that we can. Huge fields – some bigger than our entire farm – also help, as does the comparatively cheap price of that land and a climate that doesn’t promote fungal diseases. Some of this we can learn from, but some is just intrinsically different. One thing is clear though – they aren’t going away, and neither are their 45 million tonnes of wheat.

Back at home we like the crop prices, but I’m getting increasingly worried about harvest. Whereas up until May the weather had been great, since then there has been a notable lack of rain. I think the oilseed rape should be OK, but everything else will be suffering significantly. It isn’t too late, but that time is fast approaching. It will be frustrating, to say the least, if we fall at the final hurdle having come so far. Fingers crossed.

Russia/Ukraine III

It’s all about vertical integration here, for the big businesses at least. These guys do it all, starting with growing the crops, raising cattle, and processing it through to steaks and burgers. The slaughtering and processing happens in one building, and is quite the sight. We couldn’t take photos of the gory bits – they were a little stomach turning. The technology is impressive however, like this automated meat grading camera:

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At the moment the feedlot can hold 20,000 cattle, this is going to get bigger.

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A rare crop of lupins

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And a nice (and moist) piece of the black earth. Most of the crops look pretty decent.

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A large portion of Russians still grow a lot of their own food on small holding like this, where we found tomatoes,

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spring onions,

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apples,

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cows,

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chickens,

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and rabbits [not for cuddling].

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A risky crop of spring oilseed rape in such a dry climate.

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The first combine, near Odesa

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cutting a very thin looking sample of winter barley.

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Quite a bit of sugar beet is grown in the region, and most looks in good condition.

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What goes clip-clop, clip-clop, BANG BANG, clip-clop, clip-clop? An Amish drive-by

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Chronic Irrigation

We started off the day looking at a field of wheat being sprayed with a fungicide. This seemed like a waste of time to me, as it was bone dry, hadn’t rained for two months, and the crop would be dead in a bout a week. Still, they wanted to do everything. When it came time to fill up again, very sweetly, the booms were given a nice rest by lying them on the floor.

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Here are a couple of crops I Wasn’t expecting to see, linseed and peas. Both very much cool season plants, in a hot season climate.

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I think we have an easy farm, this place is another planet. Here’s a rectangular 600ha field of wheat.

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These zero-tilled sunflowers looked really good, considering the lack of rain. No problems with compaction that we could see – nice straight roots.

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Onto the biggest irrigation project in Russia. They have around 100 pivots, some of which are 480m long covering 129ha of crops each.

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This pump house can move 3 tonnes of water every second:

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Back in Stravropol there was a first- a black burger which came complete with black latex gloves for eating it with:

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And finally another arty farty photo:

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From Russia with photos

It’s time to crack out the travel blogging again, but at this point I can’t be bothered to write much, so there will only be a few pictures to look at.

This involved getting up at 4.45am, battling with cancelled trains on the way to Gatwick, spending 4 hours in Riga, a night in Moscow – but 24 hours later we arrived:

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The first field we stopped in was very black, very dry, and very sparse. Not a good advert for Russian wheat:

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It did have one thing going for it however. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had leguminous weeds like these peas, clover and vetch?

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The next field was even worse. Heavily over-cultivated, there was terrible soil erosion on what was only a very slight slope. The sunflowers looked very sorry for themselves, although amazingly this isn’t considered a write-off.

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This photo was only a kilometre or so away, but the farming is clearly a lot better. This should yield perhaps 3-4t/ha.

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Confirmation, as if it were needed, that we don’t work machinery hard enough in the UK. Some of these tractors have done over 20,000 hours, and they work 24 hours a day in 12 hour shifts on a 9,000ha “smallholding”. This is one way fixed costs are kept so much lower than we can manage.

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The landscape is really unusual (for me anyway), and beautiful:

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And to finish, an arty farty photo of a grainstore roof:

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