Potato production is down but peas and beans increase

We’re into November and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness as the poet wrote approvingly, but that is not so readily appreciated by those negotiating foggy, leaf-thick, rural roads in the warmest November spell for 70 years.

And what’s good for autumn crop growth is also good for crop pests and diseases, one more example of why farmers are never 100% happy.

That’s also why it is never easy to be 100% confident that harvest is complete. Somewhere in our area there will still be a field of beans or oats to harvest as a farmer who had been waiting for just the right conditions blesses the day after day of mist and dampness. But according to most reports, including the round up from members around the country by the NFUs, harvest is over and it has been one of heavy to record yields and low prices.

Stocks of grain are bigger than average and the chances of prices rising much, if at all, are slim. Forecasts are already gloomy for next harvest with talk of farmers leaving fields fallow rather than growing crops to lose money. But looking round the countryside large areas of the crop-growing parts are now green, tram-lined and growing well with oilseed rape, winter barley and winter wheat so there is some optimism about.

David Hay in Perthshire, formerly one of Scotland’s large-scale potato growers, said recently that the family had given up the crop this year because it no longer made financial sense. The June census results for Scotland confirm that he is not alone as the potato acreage fell 10% to 26,000 hectares. At one time most farms capable of growing a crop would have ten or 20 acres of potatoes.

Now there are only a few hundred potato growers, some with more than 1,000 acres, and the investment needed in machinery and storage systems to meet supermarket requirements is huge. Planting and harvesting are like a military operation and crops are sprayed up to 20 times a year to maintain growth and health. As with dairying, pigs and poultry we’re unlikely to run out of potatoes as growers quit. Instead those who stay in the game produce more.

Against the decline in potato production, pea production in Scotland more than doubled and bean production increased by 46%. That was partly adaptation to new European Union rules on environmentally friendly crops. The downside is that in a wet year peas and beans are difficult to harvest.

The difficulty of thousands of relatively small businesses trying to get a decent return from the open market is illustrated by another census return, that for dairy cattle. We’ve had a year of low prices for milk and numerous stories about dairy farmers quitting, all true. The only way to encourage prices to rise would be to cut production. But dairy cattle numbers increased, ergo more milk, not less.