LANDLINES by Halidon

ALL is not quite safely gathered in, but the recent spell of lovely October weather has brought that happy day closer. Grain and beans, that is. Maincrop potato harvesting has some way to go and the way won’t be pretty, with low yields, incipient or obvious disease and, for some, wet field conditions persist.

But the countryside in general has been looking a picture during days of sunshine and blue skies. Winter barley and winter wheat are rowing up nicely, oilseed rape is looking presentable where slugs have left plants.

The dark brown of ploughed and recently-drilled fields is now dominant although straw is still to be baled, when dry enough, and there are bales to be cleared.

As ever with a bad harvest, after the satisfaction of at least getting crops into store comes the reckoning of extra costs, lower yields, poorer quality and what happens with forward contracts made in good faith between sellers and buyers months ago.

An important rule of contracts – First Rule, as the comedian in ‘Hi de Hi’ almost said years ago – is that a verbal agreement is binding. Because so much in farming is still, remarkably, done on trust, verbal agreements are more common than prudent business management would suggest.

The advice to get something in writing on both sides holds good even for the closest relationships.

Many other questions are asked about contracts in a difficult year, for instance, not enough grain to meet quantity agreed, grain rejected because quality is too low to meet specifications, late collection by a buyer, market price rising way above the forward price agreed. But the basic answer is always that a contract should be in writing and that whatever is agreed on either side has to be fulfilled. Variations or easing can only be by agreement. Best of luck if that is necessary.

It is a certainty that this year’s bitter harvest will have a dramatic effect on arable farming profits, or lack of them.

It will be interesting to see what it does to returns from rural estates which Savills reported recently were “remaining resilient” to economic pressures.

That finding in the firm’s estate benchmarking survey was based on a year ending April 5, 2012. That is, returns based on the excellent farming year of 2011, with an average gross income on all estates of £494 per hectare; income from the agricultural sector of estates increased by 6.9 per cent.

Net in-hand farm income – farms run by estate managers – rose by 19 per cent to £326 per hectare and income from contract farming increased by 47 per cent. Secure tenancy rents rose by an average of 0.5 per cent to £173 per hectare. Farm Business Tenancy rents – short term agreements used only in England – increased by 1 per cent to £227 per hectare.

That modest increase seems to belie concerns and criticism from national farmers’ unions and the Tenant Farmers’ Association that big rent increases are being squeezed out of persecuted tenant farmers.

But only about one third of tenants have a rent negotiation in any given year – because most are on a three-yearly review system – so the average increase for those involved in a particular year is higher than the figures quoted.

Farm Business Tenancy figures, as with short term limited duration tenancies in Scotland, are a different matter.

These tenancies are usually sought in a sellers’ market by farmers anxious, sometimes desperate, for more land. The interesting part will be how many are as desperate to extend operations after this harvest. And how resilient estates remain to economic pressures according to next year’s findings.

There has also been a recent survey of banks and bankers. No surprise about the main finding, namely that many farmers feel their bank is giving them a hard time, an ill reward for the loyalty most have shown their banks by staying with them for ten years and more.

Any farmer who has dealt with a bank knows it can be a one-sided relationship. It can be frustrating. It can also be rewarding. But for most of us the rot set in 20 years or more ago when the old-style bank manager disappeared, to be replaced by a range of customer service operations ‘master minded’ from, for most of us, Edinburgh or Glasgow headquarters.

Some things don’t change. The Royal Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale were by some distance the banks with most customers in the survey, Bank of Scotland some way back and others such as Lloyds, Halifax and Barclays barely figuring. It was also, being fair, a sample of only 109 farmers persuaded to reply to NFU Scotland’s request for information.

The survey found that the average overdraft arrangement fee was 1.34 per cent, but in some cases was as much as 4 per cent.

The average interest rate above base was 3.69 per cent, but was as high as 8 per cent and as low as 1.25 per cent. Eighty of the farmers were owner-occupiers, 29 were tenants.

Without knowing the basis on which overdrafts were agreed with all 109 and what their personal circumstances are it’s wrong to say that banks are behaving badly to loyal customers. But we might think it.