Good yields and quality are linked to much lower prices

Ah, the perils of being too cautious - trained by experts never to use superlatives, exclamation marks or absolutes in a newspaper article I suggested last week that this was one of the earliest starts to harvest for some years.

I have now been corrected by those who keep precise records and advised that I could have written: “Earliest start to harvest since 1976!” Not only that I can add that yields and quality are good for winter barley.

That’s in Scotland and the north of England. But in many parts of south and middle England combines are already racing through winter wheat and spring barley. Or were until the weather went from prolonged heat to a more usual for the time of year changeable to wet.

But as noted last week, good yields and quality are being linked to much lower prices than growers have had for years. Expectations of £150 per tonne, modest in some recent years, have been reduced by £20 to £40 per tonne with, for example, futures prices for wheat at their lowest for four years at the end of last week.

Given the volatility of world markets that will have changed by now, for better or more probably even worse.

When weather permits the harvest rush is there for all to see, not only in the fields where combines, tractors and trailers, balers, forklifts and cultivators are at work, but on rural and not so rural roads. A convoy of six pea viners on a main road as I saw a few days ago is exceptional, but there can’t be many regular motorists in the Borders who haven’t found themselves behind farm machinery of some kind in the past two or three weeks.

I like to think that any forced slowing down or delay because of this is met with understanding that the man in the tractor or combine is only doing his job and the general expectation that they won’t be going far on a public road before turning off.

But developments in farming in recent years have changed what a motorist might expect.

One is the dramatic increase in the size of farm machinery and the speed it can travel at. A second is the increase in farm size and/or the number of farms run by one business which means more roadwork between fields or farms. A third is the increase in large-scale farm contracting businesses working over a wide area. A fourth, linked to all of the above by commercial imperatives to get work done as quickly as possible, is a more obvious reluctance by farm machinery operators to pull aside and let queuing traffic past.

That leads to frustration and bad feeling. It has also led to a police force in Wales warning tractor drivers to pull over if there are more than six vehicles behind them or risk getting points on their driving licence. I don’t think that will catch on – make that hope – but I can see why the police might be trying to put the frighteners on.

There is another road hazard to consider as the weather has turned catchy and fields wetter at times and that is mud on the road.