I would, honestly I would, like to ignore the weather. I also know that farming is not the only business, or activity, to suffer from bad weather. But it does suffer more than most and as we move into July the signs on farms and in the countryside of a seriously bad summer are multiplying.
Grain crops, for instance, are struggling towards maturity and the possibility of some being harvested in August, but diseases have been rampant.
The double-whammy of that has been that as wet weather makes the need to spray more urgent, under-wheel muddy, boggy, conditions have made that operation more difficult, unpleasant and less effective. Finding spraying “windows” – otherwise known as a dry few hours – has been almost impossible.
I saw a crop specialist quoted as saying that there are problems with potatoes “because potatoes are a sunshine crop”.
Not only that, they’re a dry-soil crop and don’t do so well in the north British equivalent of paddy fields.
A lot of wet silage has been made, which means lower feeding value this winter, and hay-making conditions are the stuff of nightmares. Again it’s an agricultural double-whammy – the more hay is turned in the hope that it will dry out, the more feeding value it loses.
In the grazing fields most livestock at grass now look as miserable as their owners.
The bad – let’s say even worse – news is that there is no sign of the weather improving.
While waiting for official confirmation that we’ve just come through the wettest, and probably most sun-less, June on record we are heading into a July where the medium-term forecast is for rain every day.
It’s at times like this that farmers’ thoughts turn to other ways of making a living, preferably ways where there is less danger of rusting or getting pneumonia, or at least ways less dependent on weather.
Such as growing trees? Long term, but one awful summer doesn’t ruin the crop. And, at present, profitable, according to a report last week that claimed a 34.8 per cent return on forestry in 2011.
That was a return way ahead of equities, gilts and commercial property, bad news for those who have those investments, but good news for those with money in trees.
At least I think so. The report seems to apply more to those putting money into trees because there are still tax benefits – my, we’ve heard a lot about those recently – and that forestry’s status as a “safe haven asset” is likely to continue.
Unlike some farm products, demand for timber in the UK is likely to remain high as our old friend demand continues to outstrip our other equally old friend, supply.
More than 70 per cent of timber used in the UK is imported.
That annual returns-index report for the timber industry comes as the Scottish Government continues to push for farmers and landowners to plant more trees to help the environment and meet carbon emission targets.
Forestry is now worth about £670 million a year to the Scottish economy, we’re told, and provides 31,000 jobs. Commercial woodland owners claim that for every one per cent of Scotland’s land area they occupy, trees provide 1,100 jobs and get £1,842 of taxpayers’ money per job.
Farming, they say, employs 670 people for every one per cent of land used and receives about £14,000 per job.
As always when arguments turn nasty, all statistics need to be treated with caution.
But another is the claim made by the Scottish Government’s woodland expansion advisory group that planting 100,000 hectares of trees in the next 10 years would reduce agricultural production by, at worst, two per cent.
That is based on the assumption, which seems reasonable to me, that in many cases tree planting, such as shelter belts or well-planned woods on less productive farmland, could increase livestock production rather than reduce it.
It’s more a question of overcoming ingrained farming prejudice that sheep are good and trees bad, a feeling shared by many villages when the timber lorries start rolling through.
The Scottish Government’s line is that forestry has a key part to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and it would like to see that target of 100,000 hectares planted in the next decade
The problem is how to do that without conflict, how to get the balance between agitated farmers and enthusiastic tree planting firms.
It is not easy when, certainly for smaller-scale tree planting schemes, so much depends on grants from the Scottish Rural Development Programme and its complicated – according to most applicants – rules. There are also complaints that conservation bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB have too much say.
Apart from the natural prejudice of sheep farmers who shudder at the thought of hill grazing being planted with trees, the problem for farmers used to annual returns on crops and livestock is that tree planting is obviously long-term.
As for the investors apparently reaping rich returns last year from their money in trees, as noted earlier, I couldn’t help thinking of the story of outside investors in Australian sheep farming who sent an urgent message to the manager of their outback holding: “Lamb prices soaring. Stop shearing and start lambing.”
No doubt apocryphal. But it makes you think.
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Weather for Galashiels
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: South west
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west