Landlines: Harvest ends with good yields and quality but low prices

After the latter half of August feeling like autumn we’re now into September and it is autumn with leaves falling steadily while the countryside has turned rapidly from golden to shades of brown.

As always, I have hopes for one of those superb September spells when crisp mornings develop into hot days and glorious pink-sky sunsets, but plenty of time for that when we’re only four days in. As for an often disappointing August – wet and stormy for most of the UK and a new record low temperature for the month recorded in Northern Ireland – modern high-capacity combines made light work of clearing heavy crops whenever there was a chance to get going.

The net result after the earliest start to harvest in almost 40 years has been one of the earliest general finishes on record with yields and quality good, the downside being low prices. All-arable farmers can’t be expected to applaud the fact that low grain prices are good news for livestock farmers because they lower the cost of feeding, but that’s a fact. Heavy yields of good quality straw for bedding and/or feeding is also good news for cattle feeders and breeders. And possibly for the long term benefit of all next year there have been almost ideal drilling conditions for oilseed rape, winter barley and winter wheat.

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As the Scottish independence referendum gets ever closer, now two weeks from today, so the arguments get more passionate. Not only between leaders of the Yes and No factions – where like most commentators I thought that the Alex Salmond v Alistair Darling shouting match generated more heat than light – but at ground level, on so-called social media (anti-social surely?) and in letters to newspapers. That includes farming magazines where, predictably, each side thinks that the other is getting an unfair share of coverage.

I don’t think that declarations for Yes and No by former NFU Scotland presidents will influence any one. That vote in two weeks time is very much an individual one, where heart more than head will rule, and the only certainty now is that whichever side wins, it is going to be close and – an easier prediction to make – the aftermath acrimonious.

Amid the excitement of an election countdown in farming circles it passed without much comment that Scottish farming’s collective bank overdraft at the end of May this year was £1.84 billion, an increase in real terms of 5% on the year. It was also the fifth consecutive annual increase to the highest level, adjusted for inflation, since the early 1980s. Ah, I remember it well – inflation percentages in the high teens, an overdraft seemingly locked solid until the splendid harvest of 1984, and fear and chaos in the country in general.

So that’s a consolation, that we’ve been here before and few farmers I speak to seem fazed by their overdraft if they have one.