Information overload – but is it as good as it sounds?

It’s not easy keeping up with the relentless flow of information from all sides, even for a single subject such as agriculture. Or to try and make sense of the information available, even for a single sector of agriculture, say meat production.

For instance, a recent survey of Scottish-based food and drink firms indicated that most felt optimistic about future prospects. So the estimate is that Scotland’s food and drink industry turnover could be £12.5billion by 2017, creating more jobs and closing in on oil and gas as the biggest single industry in the country.

That will be partly achieved by exporting firms concentrating on developing markets such as Asia, the Far East and Brazil, rather than Western Europe.

Very good, excellent. To some extent, ex-farm cattle prices back that optimism, up 51 per cent in three years. But is that increasing demand or declining numbers? There is concern that in the same period retail prices rose only 22 per cent and that the processing industry – which buys cattle from farms then tries to make a profit by using as much as possible of every carcase and selling parts to butchers, supermarkets and any other buyer – is being squeezed.

Considering that over the years meat processors have been about as popular with meat producers as maltsters are with grain growers, it’s odd that organisations such as Quality Meat Scotland are arguing that processors are getting a raw deal. As for restoring a balance, the suggestion that retailers should charge much more for beef won’t go down well with shoppers. Beef is already, and always has been, more expensive than any other meat. The quality of pork and, yes, chicken, now available at much lower prices, means that trying to increase beef prices further will be resisted. Shoppers won’t buy, even from supermarkets, and fewer of us each year buy from local butchers. What will that do to the £12.5billion target?

Change was emphasised again last week when Jim Hogg closed his butcher’s shop in Gala. When he started work as an apprentice there were six independent butchers in the town. There will now be one. Although High Street butchers have hung on in the Borders more than in most parts of Britain, the inexorable influence of the supermarkets on our shopping continues, although not necessarily all bad.

Recent ex-farm sheep prices also suggest a blip in that drive. Trade for lambs for slaughter has collapsed, with home producers not helped by Tesco and Asda importing lamb at the peak of the Scottish and English season.

There has been the inevitable knock-on drop for breeding sheep, although some breeding sheep prices last autumn reached record levels and comparison with two years ago might be more realistic.

Will the same apply to breeding rams? We shall find out tomorrow when almost 5,000 from 17 breeds, plus crosses, will go through the sale rings at Kelso. Last year’s average was £636. Place your bets for this year!