Grain price prospects remain uncertain

A few days with sunshine last week changed the look of winter barley crops, bringing the prospect of harvest a little closer. What might be classed as a window of opportunity this summer also allowed a spurt of silage making and brought a sliver of hope to those still trying to make hay.

‘Late’ is the word for almost every crop, either to change colour as winter barley has eventually done to something resembling ripeness, or for spring barley grains to fill, or for potato shaws to meet across the drills; if potatoes don’t develop as far as that prospects for a reasonable crop dwindle.

But lateness, perversely, seems to have helped strawberry and rasp crops. Immature, if there at all, during the worst of the rain, in the past week or two the realatively small areas of strawberries and rasps in our area have been ripening and quality is generally good.

On a national scale I noted that a large-scale soft fruit grower said that picking difficulties and lack of demand because of the bad weather meant he was facing a loss of up to 20 per cent and the Scottish soft fruit industry as a whole a loss of about £10 million.

Most of that industry is concentrated in Fife and Angus, under an increasing area of polytunnels although growers in the Lothians and north-east Scotland now have a reasonable share of the market.

In the Borders and north Northumberland production tends to be on a smaller scale, although no less professional, and the number of pick-your-own operations has fallen.

I’m not sure if that is because PYO is less profitable or because not enough of us are prepared to bend our backs when punnets of fruit can be bought off the shelf at supermarkets or, that rarity in the Borders, a greengrocer.

Personally, if pressure of work is not too urgent and the weather is good I enjoy an hour or two picking fruit, although I wouldn’t like to try to make a living at it on piecework of so many pence per lb picked. That’s a job for the young and keen, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.

Although grain crops are gradually ripening, quality and price prospects remain uncertain. Nationally, the area of grain and oilseed is back to the high of 2008 at just over 3.8 million hectares, with oilseed alone a record 0.712 million hectares. Almost 1.0 million hectares of barley, spring and winter, are growing, but surprisingly – given the good publicity porridge has had as the most healthy way to start the day, and apparent demand – only 0.110 million hectares of oats.

How those areas will convert to yields is another matter because there has been so little sun, and the same applies to potato yields. Grain quality is also likely to be lower than average. And in spite of the worst USA drought since 1956, which has had a severe effect on potential quality and yield, as well as drought in parts of Europe which indicates probable shortages on the world market, quoted futures prices for grain are fluctuating wildly.

That is because possible grain shortages expected to increase prices have been counteracted by the problems of the Eurozone and a fall in the value of the euro.

Grain prices have always been affected by the world market. But in the days of a farmer taking samples along to his local corn exchange and arguing in a more or less friendly way with a merchant about another sixpence or shilling a quarter, or a respected grain company traveller inspecting open sacks of grain in the granary, we didn’t realise that.

Now with big business dominating the grain trade and instantaneous communication, prices can slump or rise £10 a tonne and more in a few hours.

NFU Mutual, the big rural insurance company, reports regularly on the problems of, and increase in, rural crime. For farmers that usually means losing tractors, quad bikes, tools and equipment, fuel and livestock.

Preventing crime and catching criminals remains the priority, but recently the Mutual commissioned research by criminologists to try to find out why thieves do what they do.

What they see as easy money would seem to be the “bleeding obvious” answer, but attempts were also made, by interviewing convicted rural criminals, to find out how they operate.

Posing as delivery drivers or mechanics is one way. Offering to do minor maintenance work or vermin control is another, as is crop picking – establishing familiarity and trust.

The problem, of course, is that many honest individuals trying to earn a living offer the same services. And small-scale opportunistic thefts don’t inflict the financial damage caused by organised criminals targeting fuel and machinery.

The better news, according to the Mutual, is that combined efforts by insurance companies and police forces are reducing rural crime in some parts of the country. But the message, as ever, is for farmers and the rural community to stay alert – there may be a thief near you.