Apart from his irrepressible urge to play with big boys’ toys such as a combine and a sugar beet harvester I thought that presenter Gregg Wallace and his colleague Philippa Forester made a good job of ‘Harvest 2015’ on TV last week.
As several other recent TV programmes have shown the most impressive parts of much modern farming are the scale of operation, the size of machinery and the skill of management, plus constant innovation and marketing expertise in supplying to supermarket specifications or niche markets.
These were exemplified by farmer Peter Barfoot, Britain’s sweetcorn supremo, producing one million cobs a day, sugar beet growers getting 80 tonnes per hectare and the innovative grower whose strip-planting method has stream-lined even further the serial production of millions of Iceberg lettuce!
On more traditional lines the Hay family in Perthshire were shown, and talked about, growing and harvesting thousands of acres of cereals two to three weeks later than usual after a largely sun-free August. That included oats, helping meet a national increase in demand for porridge.
David Hay also gave an example of the hard-headed decisions farmers have to make. The family has grown potatoes, more recently on a large scale, since 1909. This year they stopped because low prices don’t make it worthwhile. A tough decision, he said, but sentiment can’t trump economics.
There was much more on blueberries, apples, quinoa, carrots of a different colour, rasps, vegetables and milk. Some of it esoteric, but most of it interesting and bringing the nuts and bolts of producing food to a wider public that those of us confined to the written word can only envy.
Official estimates for this year’s grain harvest confirm local anecdotal evidence in the Borders that yields are up, but that does not compensate for the slump in prices. Scottish figures indicate a 5% total increase on last year at 3.3 million tonnes, with spring barley average yield put at 6.2 tonnes per hectare, wheat 9.7 tonnes and oilseed rape at 4.2.
For those who hanker for the past and like to think of how we used to farm instead of this new-fangled nonsense of innovation, maximum use of technology and always thinking ahead, there are still the autumn ram and bull sales to go to. As always, these provide a contrast between farming reality – lamb and beef prices in the doldrums and consumption down, the NFU agonising about lower subsidy payments, farmers saying they’re going out of business – and the fantasy world of six-figure prices for ‘good looking’ sheep. Bulls at least have some recorded evidence of what they might do. This year’s tops are £160,000 for a Blackface ram and £130,000 for a bull.
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, ‘Harvest 2015’ was a welcome antidote to this annual pantomime.