Looking back at over 12 years in the export industry it is often easy to forget that not so long ago the UK was an importer of wheat, says George Forbes, chairman of HGCA’s BCE Committee, which helps to stimulate and promote cereal export demand.
Mr Forbes who has chaired HGCA’s BCE committee for six years, is to retire from his post this week. And according to the Scottish Borders farmer, it was only in the 1960s that the UK started stepping up the sowing of wheat because prices were improving and the UK was seen to have good conditions to grow the crop - providing a surplus and a new opportunity for farmers and traders.
And for Mr Forbes, who farms 880 acres of land used for arable and livestock farming at Georgefield, near Coldstream, this is why the work of BCE and its committee - which is made up equally of growers and traders – is so important.
He said: “If there wasn’t already a BCE then they’d have to invent one. BCE is very instrumental in helping find overseas markets for cereals, primarily milling and feed wheat, and letting other countries know it is available.
“Even though quality this harvest has not been good, it is still important we work to maintain these relationships and contacts. Algeria for example didn’t even know we produced milling wheat, so it’s about inviting millers and traders over to show them just what we have to offer.
“This is where BCE comes into its own. BCE is seen as a separate entity for some countries – as being part of HGCA, it is independent and has access to information like HGCA’s Harvest Report and Market Data.
“We send samples to other countries and hold seminars like the annual Bread Baking Workshop. Wheat is such an important commodity, it’s a lifeline - it’s used to make bread and that keeps people alive.”
Mr Forbes, who used to chair Newcastle United Football Club and who also ran a Livestock Auction and Land Agency Business in North East England, together with Farming in Berwickshire, got involved with BCE in 2000 when he became the NFUS representative on the British Cereal Exports Committee and after six years he became Chairman.
He is most proud of helping to introduce the ukp and uks classifications used for bread flour and for biscuit making into the export industry, which previously categorised wheat by varieties only. The classifications have become a way of highlighting export specifications in a convenient manner for overseas buyers, and are now part of grain contracts.
His biggest challenge during his time with BCE has been trying to access the Egyptian market - the biggest importer of wheat in the world, where 10 million tonnes is expected to be imported during the 2012/13 season.
A lack of moisture in the soil means Egyptian wheat struggles to make bread and biscuit quality because of the lack of gluten, and what they do produce is well below their requirements.
Wheat is used to produce the subsidised ‘baladi’ bread which continues to feed the country’s low income population.
But for Mr Forbes, he is happy enough that they came close.
He said: “Export trading is a difficult business, especially in Egypt, where when all the factors involved which include grain specification, low moisture and currency are favorable, then wheat will join the large tonnage of beans that we annually sell to Egypt.
“We have been involved from the start in Morocco and Tunisia and now Algeria, we are becoming increasingly relevant in North Africa due to the efforts of the BCE staff, and we were almost there with Egypt having gone through quite a long process.
“Our export traders worked together with us and we were almost there on numerous occasions, we are on the Egyptian government’s tender list as an official supplier, so I am hopeful that BCE under the chairmanship of Mike Hambly may still reach an agreement. There will always be things that you look back on, but I just feel so privileged and delighted to have been part of BCE, I have met so many wonderful and interesting people both home and abroad and have learned so many things.
“Perhaps one of the biggest things I’ve come to value is just how much growers and traders need each other.
“It’s the farmers who can tell traders which varieties are working, how the yields are doing and it’s the traders who can advise farmers on particular requirements for the export market - and over the past 12 years I have even greater admiration for them both.”