Preparing for War

BY JIM WEBSTER

One job I have, every year, is cutting next year’s firewood. This winter I’ve been tidying up corners of the yard from time to time, mainly with an axe and chainsaw. Out here (a mile from a gas terminal) we don’t have gas, and one of our main sources of heat is the open fire.

One side effect is that I’ve been able to watch gas prices with some dispassion. After all, the oil we need for our cooker hasn’t been capped or anything, it’s just gone up and the media hasn’t particularly bewailed our fate. Still, whilst cutting next year’s firewood (hopefully some will be for the year after as well) I do wonder what the world will be like when we come to use it.

I’ve been watching the Ukraine with rather more interest than I’ve been watching gas prices. Some of the commentators have said things along the lines of, ‘The Russians are waiting for a cold spell, as January has been too warm and they want a sharp frost for the tanks.’ If so, they could be disappointed, because the forecast for February in Kiev (or Kyiv) is to be milder than usual. If the Russians don’t invade, the weather might be the reason.

Frankly I can think of no other reasons. We’ve had a lot of posturing but I think it’s becoming obvious that the Ukrainians are being hung out to dry. People are threatening economic sanctions, but with the Germans depending on Russian Gas, and the EU seeming to be equivocal on the level of sanctions they would impose, I can see Putin assuming that people are going to posture but not do anything.

From his point of view, he could do with a cold snap, the ground hard enough for his tanks, and the wind biting enough to get Germans turning up their central heating.

But from a farming point of view, what does it all mean? Well the EU imported 13.6 million tons of grain from the Ukraine. Most maize, but to put it in proportion, the UK produced about that amount of wheat in 2018, so it’s a lot. Given the broad grain fields of the Ukraine are classic tank country, either they’ll be under Russian control or nobody will be ploughing them.

But at the time when we suddenly need more grain, the price of gas has gone through the roof, pushing up the price of fertilisers. In December 2020, imported Ammonium Nitrate fertiliser was £217 a ton. In December 2021 the same fertiliser went up to £632 a ton. I’ve talked to a lot of farmers and a surprising number of them are assuming their yields will drop because they cannot afford to buy the usual inputs.

On top of that, the pressure on agriculture from all the environmental lobby groups, the general public and even the government, is to ‘go green’ and do more environmental things. I’ve looked carefully at the new Sustainable Farming Incentive. Like the cry to ‘plant for trees to save the world,’ it is impossible to see how we can keep up output and join these schemes.

There’s a general feeling that government will have to step in this summer and do something to hold gas prices down, perhaps by a subsidy to the suppliers who’ll pay it back when the price comes down. If the price comes down. But I think the situation is going to get far more difficult than that. If there is a war in the Ukraine, it’ll be more than gas prices that go up.

I wonder if next year, when I’m burning that wood, I’ll be reading up on a Defra scheme to increase food production, perhaps by encouraging farmers to use more sewage sludge as fertiliser, and to farm more intensively? Perhaps a Russian invasion will be turned back by Extinction Rebellion protestors gluing themselves to the roads in front of the tanks; on the grounds that the tanks have diesel engines and they’re polluting the environment. I suspect one scenario is about as likely as the other.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.