FOR this month’s article, Patrick Stephenson, pictured, from Arable Advisor, an Independent Agricultural Consultancy group in Pickering, looks at the impact of the British weather on farming

IT always dangerous talking about the weather in an article for publication because by the time it is in print the good old British weather will have done a 180 degree U-turn. Despite this I will commence by stating it has been a dry start to 2019.

My good friend, who works for the Environment Agency, tells me that we are no longer in an “extended dry period”, so I asked him what that means. His reply would have made Yes Ministers’ Sir Humphrey Appleby proud.

We are, apparently, a level above this, which he described as “a potential shortage of water”, but definitely not a drought. As a farming community, we are all guilty of farming the year we are in, with the memory of a previous year. This means we could be heading for a 1976 or a 2012, so take your pick as either were bone dry, but definitely not a drought, or it will start raining in April and not stop.

As an agronomist, we expect the worst and hope for better, so planning is a key part of mapping the workload going forward. We cannot ignore Brexit but the reality is we, like the rest of the country have no control over the outcome. However, commodities will still trade and in the UK we are a net importer of food.

Arable farmers can sell crops at reasonable prices for the coming couple of years, providing an element of order and stability. Autumn and winter have been kind to crops so far and fields look full of potential. Continuing the theme of weather, farmers always believe “the worst is around the corner” and at this time of year this leads to a rush to apply the first nitrogen and sulphur to the crops. The rational for this early start is often varied, ranging from ‘If it rains we will never travel on that field for weeks’ to “we are going to be busy soon so we won’t have time to do it”; both are definitely the pessimists view of farming.

The winter period is not only a time for planning but also re-engaging the grey matter as you have attended an unending amount of workshops, conferences and results meetings. I am very fortunate that I attend a conference in America that is organised by the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants. Although it may seem that we would have little in common with our American cousins, the reality is that we all have the same problems. My interest this year was sparked by a whole session on the growing of hemp and cannabis. Why you may ask? If I describe my American colleagues as upright citizens in the community, very religious, pro-gun carrying and very proud of their nation, it sounds unfathomable that they would be talking about it.

The US has four States where cannabis is legalised and there is a growing national demand for the medicinal oils. In Canada, it is now a legalised drug and every household can grow up to four plants without a licence. It is firmly believed that there will be a greater relaxation for the medicinal use of cannabis (Agriculture Bill 2018) in the States. Did I learn anything? In short, yes, the commercialisation of cannabis in a legalised form is a high investment high-risk crop. One grower had fully costed his crop, the total outlay came to a whopping £17,000 an acre, and he had yet to receive any money from the sale. I think we can safely assume that large areas of Ryedale will not be growing cannabis in the near future.

Unfortunately, the remainder of events I have attended in the last few months were a more sober wake up call, to the reality of farming in 2019. On the growing front resistant weeds, diseases and insects are an on-going headache. The most upsetting theme was the social media agenda that anything to do with farming is bad, unsustainable, polluting, immoral. We must all learn to engage positively with the public on the immense amount of good we do as an industry and yes, accept we are very open to change.