Keep Calm and Carry On

BY BEN EAGLE

It has been a funny old year. A few months ago the Beast from the East gripped the country with snow and icy weather unlike any I have seen in my lifetime, rivalling the winters of old described by older generations. Jumping ahead to today, in the current weather context we haven’t seen any rain here in Essex for 53 days. Further, there isn’t any in the forecast for at least another week. The record for the longest run of days without recordable rain in the UK is 73, set in 1893. Will we surpass that this year? I’m not usually a betting man but I’d be tempted to give a flutter on that statistic this year.

From a harvest perspective a lot of farmers are seeing this year as positively as they can. Those who can remember it hark back to the summer of 1976 when farmers experienced the challenges brought by a similar hot and dry period. Yields were down then and the main problem was that grain was exceptionally dry, reducing its weight. The dryness problem is certainly apparent this year with combines entering fields as early in the morning as they can to try and catch any moisture they can – not a usual problem for the UK! This said, condition could be far worse and as Guy Smith, who farms down the road from where I live, wrote in a recent issue of Farmers Weekly his standard response to how harvest is going this year is ‘’It’s better than expected, but I wasn’t expecting much’’.

I groaned this week as I looked at the sheep market prices, having recently sorted our first lot of lambs to sell. For a number of reasons prices are crashing and the price of lamb has fallen below the five-year average for the first time since May last year. That’s farming for you. Overseas demand has fallen with French buyers (a major market for UK producers) turning towards other producers for lamb, especially from Spain (imports to France from Spain have risen by 80%). The future is uncertain for livestock producers, especially in the light of Brexit and we are all going to have to take a hard and long look at the way we do things to adapt to whatever situation we face next year and beyond. The weather is also having a significant impact of livestock farmers in the UK, with grass condition and availability tumbling, raising questions of how to feed and fatten stock or whether it’s better to get rid of them earlier rather than later. Many farmers are bizarrely finding themselves baling hay and turning it straight out to their stock, normally reserved for feeding months after the summer is over. It could be a difficult winter ahead in terms of feed costs for producers, although arable farmers are reaping the benefits with straw prices likely to go through the roof.

Then we come to Brexit. Journalists, commentators and political hacks seem to love the intrigue and sway of political bickering and the drama of the big halls at Westminster and Brussels but from the perspective of a small countryside business we are a long way from any sort of certainty and therefore we have little choice but to keep calm and carry on. It is difficult to adapt to change or mitigate potential issues if you don’t know what they are. The threat section in our SWOT analysis is booming but it’s difficult to know what to do about it. I realise that many Country Squire Magazine readers disagree with me when it comes to Brexit but I continue to have little faith that we will be better off post-Brexit, certainly when it comes to the countryside. I appreciate that Brexit is not all about economics, but economic wellbeing is important and the knock on effects could be critical. However, the important word there is ‘could’ and I see little point speculating on the dangers and concerns of what ‘might’ happen, when it hasn’t happened yet. I wish we had more control and more of an insight into the crystal ball of the future but we don’t. We can merely sit by while the politicians bicker, keep calm and carry on.

Ben Eagle writes about farming, conservation and the countryside, blogs over at thinkingcountry.com, produces the Meet the Farmers podcast and co-manages an 800 acre mixed family farm in Essex.

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