In 2008 we made more money than we have ever made in my farming lifetime. The wheat yields were big, the prices higher than ever and the costs relatively low. This year we shall lose more money than we have ever lost. The wheat yields were average, the prices were down by 40% whilst the cost of inputs doubled. Indeed the cost of fertilisers actually rose by 300%. Put these two years together, divide by two and you have two average years.
A year to remember and a year to forget. I have never known anything like it since I started farming thirty six years ago. We produced more wheat than we have ever grown before, and we sold it at a higher price than we have ever done before. So it stands to reason that it was a wonderful year. But it was not.
Does anybody out there actually read these Annual Reports? I must assume that they do not and thus nobody will be surprised if I start with a small re-cap. Two years ago in 2005 I whinged “The price of our main product, wheat, remains static at around sixty pounds (per tonne)”. Last year my final tear-jerking peroration read: “Yet today this particular farmer is a reasonably happy human being. He still has some wheat in the grainstore and thus would be even happier if the price of wheat reached £100 per tonne.
This year has been as good as last year was bad. Not only was our harvest the third biggest on record but the price of wheat has risen by 25%. So much for supply and demand. But perhaps even more exciting than the harvest was the fact that we have achieved the nearest thing to sanctity available to British farmers – short of converting to the organic religion and thereby qualifying for instant sainthood. Such is our holiness it is very probable that we shall soon be secreting the odour of sanctity*. To understand the significance of this phenomenon it helps to have a profound knowledge of both the common agricultural policy and catholic theology.
Agricultural economics, along with chiropody and the paintings of Cy Twombly, is the most boring subject in the world. And if it is boring to a farmer like me, it must be doubly so for the rest of the human race. So brace yourselves for a dollop of tedium. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was invented over fifty years ago for two big reasons (and lots of little ones). The first biggy was to ensure that never again would Europe be vulnerable to U boats sinking our food supplies as they trundled across the Atlantic. The second was to make peasants richer and thus less likely to vote communist. Don’t laugh. In the 1940s nearly half the Italian and French peasants did actually vote communist.
For those who do not keep these annual reports in a perfumed velvet folder beside their bed, I should remind you that last year’s headline read THE PRICE OF WHEAT DOUBLES (ALMOST). Such is the volatility of the market these days that the price has since dropped by nearly fifty percent. It is, therefore, fortunate that we enjoyed the second largest harvest ever at Thriplow. However, as you would expect of a farmer, I prefer to stress the pessimistic and overlook the optimistic.
It was a year full of extremes. Some nice, some nasty but all totally unexpected. First was the weather, which these days we can conveniently blame on global warming but I suspect was simply the result of random meteorological chance of the sort which must have happened many times over many millennia. When primitive man experienced a ludicrously cold winter or a stifling summer (as he surely did) he cursed the gods. Today we are somewhat sceptical about divine intervention in such matters but instead have global warming to blame.
The second-best wheat harvest ever, record-breaking yields of sugar beet, very good oilseed rape, all of which combined to make a great year. Right? Wrong. We shall probably lose money. Of course I don’t expect any non-farming readers of this report either to believe this or to feel remotely sympathetic. For the last thirty years (most of which have seen unparallelled prosperity for farmers) the National Farmers Union (NFU) has been shouting from the rooftops that British agriculture is in trouble. Now that this really is the case, it is hardly surprising that nobody believes them. The fairy story about the little boy who cried wolf should be pinned up above the desk of all farming leaders. Those who have been reading these reports for the past twenty eight years know that I have never complained about my lot. Au contraire.
was how Doctor Johnson characterised the nocturnal atmosphere in Macbeth. He could equally well have been describing the way this farmer feels today. We lost money this year (i.e. from the crop grown in 2000 but sold in 2001) for only the second time in my farming lifetime,† and the outlook for next year looks even worse. Regular readers of these Annual Reports will attest to the fact that I am not congenitally pessimistic. Unlike many (most, actually) of my profession, I am happy to admit to the good times. Which is why I should be believed when I say things today are very difficult indeed.
Fifty years ago we used to chant this at school. Today, as I stare out of the window onto ponds which litter the farm in places where I have never seen water stand before, the jingle has a slightly sinister ring to it. It is also rather poignant because I, like most farmers, have my own arsenal of folksy, meaningless (but somehow very reassuring) aphorisms. I am particularly proud of one of these because I happen to have invented it myself. On our light drought-prone land we need moisture quite as much as fertiliser. Hence my cheerful refrain, “We’ll never go broke if it rains”. Today, after the wettest autumn which has ever been recorded, it is time to admit that I got it wrong.