landlines

There are times when a gale is howling; dust, straw, bits of plastic bag and netting flying; roofs shaking, doors banging, a tree wobbling, cattle getting twitchy and tempers fraying that I wonder whether a calm, snowy day might not be preferable.

Then I think of about this time a year ago and remind myself not to be silly. A gale is unpleasant and can cause damage, but snow tends to be a show-stopper. There has also been the slight compensation that December’s gales came along with high temperatures – Christmas Day at more than 15C was almost a record, Boxing Day was more than 14C.

So much for earlier pessimistic forecasts, although not by the official Meteorological Office, that we were in for another December and January of deep-freeze conditions and snow. Like any other pundit who occasionally gets it right, I’m happy to note that I said we’d have a snow-free December.

Which is about as far as I go with predictions of any kind, “humorous” as is the fashion at the start of a new year, or serious. It’s satisfying if you get one right, mortifying if it’s wrong, and increasingly I’m inclined to wait and see what happens rather than waste time and effort forecasting and second-guessing.

Think about it. If the same principle was applied by economists, political commentators and football reporters, then TV news programmes could be halved in length, newspapers half the size, Twitter reduced to an occasional chirp and we could all be unhappy once about any particular development rather than twice, one of them in anticipation.

But the habit is too deeply ingrained and, given a quiet hour or two, there can be a gruesome fascination in studying forecasts for the new year ahead as made by, for example, farm business consultants Andersons in their annual Outlook publication.

Setting their stall out, Andersons say that 2011 evolved along the lines that they suggested at this time last year – volatility and uncertainty about the future of agricultural support systems (mainly the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy), but an underlying feeling of confidence among farmers.

They add, with a nod towards readers who can give themselves a pat on the back: “Despite this volatility, particularly in Scotland, those that have adopted sensible buying and marketing strategies should have had a good year.

“Grain prices have been consistently strong, with arable input costs” – sprays and fertilisers mainly – “reasonable if bought early.

“Lamb prices have, on average, increased for the third year in a row and the beef price was a significant improvement on 2009 and 2010. The milk prices continues to be too low for some, but those with economies of scale” – big herds – “are thriving. Lastly, pig prices are getting closer to 2009 levels and feed price increases have levelled out.”

As a result, they say, “many Scottish producers will be feeling buoyant”, especially sheep farmers where there was a big increase in price for breeding females. But it wouldn’t be a forecast if it didn’t give something to worry about: “Whether these price increases are sustainable is another matter.”

So much for 2011 and good luck to those who adopted, without fail, sensible buying and marketing policies throughout the year. My ambition to be among them some day remains undimmed.

And the outlook for the year ahead from Andersons? First, a mild criticism: “Since 2005, Scottish farmers have been paid on the basis of past farming activity, with some receiving high per hectare payments. This provided a base from which many farms could have restructured or adapted their businesses to prepare for future policy changes and market conditions without fear of loss of support. In many cases, though, high support levels” – subsidies – “have merely allowed businesses to put off making changes.”

Some will be forced to within the next few years because from 2014 the historic basis for subsidies will be scrapped, Andersons say, as changes are made to the CAP. However, the transition period for the change is uncertain. What is certain, they say, is that eventually there will be significant winners and losers.

Particular worries include any future definition of “active” farmers, a possible maximum on subsidy per farming business, and environmental constraints. At Scottish Government level, farmers and landowners are concerned about the next rural development programme and the future of the less-favoured areas scheme.

My own view, which must be the view of anyone who has followed EU and CAP negotiations of any kind over the years, or efforts by Scottish or Westminster governments to produce rural and farming policies, is that discussions and arguments will run and run. Change is never as dramatic as critics of subsidised farming would like it to be and never as severe as farmers fear.

If I was forecasting, which of course I’m not, I would suggest that 2012 will be another year of talk-talk. As for weather and commodity prices, who can say? Certainly not me. But that’s the challenge of any new year and I wish everyone a good one.