A few days with sunshine last week changed the look of winter barley crops, bringing the prospect of harvest a little closer. The weather also allowed a spurt of silage making and brought a sliver of hope to those still trying to make hay.
“Late” is the word for almost every crop, either to change colour as winter barley has eventually done to something resembling ripeness, or for spring barley grains to fill, or for potato shaws to meet across the drills; if potatoes don’t develop that far, prospects for a reasonable crop dwindle.
Lateness seems to have helped strawberry and rasp crops. Immature, if there at all, during the worst of the rain, in the past week or two the relatively small areas of strawberries and rasps in our area have been ripening and quality is generally good.
On a national scale, I noted that a large-scale soft fruit grower said that picking difficulties and lack of demand because of the bad weather meant he was facing a loss of up to 20 per cent and the Scottish soft fruit industry as a whole, a loss of about £10 million.
Most of that industry is in Fife and Angus, under an increasing area of polytunnels, though growers in the Lothians and north-east Scotland have a reasonable share of the market.
In the Borders and north Northumberland, with production on a smaller scale, though no less professional, the number of pick-your-own operations has fallen.
I’m not sure if that is because PYO is less profitable or because not enough of us are prepared to bend our backs when fruit can be bought at supermarkets or, that rarity in the Borders, a greengrocer.
If the weather is good, I enjoy an hour or two picking fruit, though I wouldn’t like to try to make a living at it at so many pence per pound picked. That’s a job for the young and keen.
Although grain crops are gradually ripening, quality and price prospects remain uncertain. Nationally, the area of grain and oilseed is back to the high of 2008 at just over 3.8 million hectares, with oilseed a record 712,000 hectares. Almost a million hectares of barley, spring and winter, are growing, but surprisingly – given the publicity porridge has had as the most healthy way to start the day, and apparent demand – only 110,000 hectares of oats.
How those areas will convert to yields is another matter because there has been so little sun, and the same applies to potato yields. Grain quality is also likely to be lower than average. In spite of the worst US drought since 1956, which has had a severe effect on potential quality and yield, and drought in parts of Europe, which suggests shortages on the world market, quoted futures prices for grain are fluctuating wildly.
That is because possible grain shortages expected to increase prices have been counteracted by the problems of the Eurozone and a fall in the value of the euro.
Grain prices have always been affected by the world market. But when a farmer took samples to his corn exchange and argued in a more or less friendly way with a merchant about sixpence or a shilling a quarter, or a company traveller inspected grain in the granary, we didn’t realise that.
Now with big business dominating the grain trade and instantaneous communication, prices can slump or rise £10 a tonne and more in a few hours.
NFU Mutual, the big rural insurance company, reports regularly on the problems of, and increase in, rural crime. For farmers that usually means losing tractors, quad bikes, tools and equipment, fuel and livestock.
The Mutual recently commissioned research try to find how thieves operate.
Posing as delivery drivers or mechanics is one way. Offering to do minor maintenance work or vermin control is another, as is crop picking – establishing familiarity and trust. The problem, of course, is that many honest individuals offer the same services. And small-scale opportunistic thefts don’t inflict the financial damage caused by organised criminals targeting fuel and machinery.
The better news, according to the Mutual, is that work by insurance companies and police is reducing rural crime in some parts of the country. But the message, as ever, is for farmers and the rural community to stay alert.