December is traditionally the quietest time of the year on UK farms. Even turkey producers, sprout farmers and Christmas tree growers will have most of the hard work done before they open the first window on their Advent calendars. So it’s a good opportunity for busy farmers like me to take a few moments over the festive season to reflect on the ups and downs of the previous 12 months. And by anybody’s reckoning, 2022 has been a tumultuous year.
So much has happened politically, constitutionally and economically in the past three months alone that it’s easy to forget what the summer was like and just what an effect the heatwave had on agriculture.
Coningsby in Lincolnshire experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded in Britain, a sweltering 40.3°C, in one of our most important arable counties, known as the “bread basket of England”. The drought hit some farmers there really hard, and across the country I heard about poor yields and entire fields of veg killed off by the unrelenting heat.
But it wasn’t bad news everywhere – far from it. The extreme weather ripened wheat quickly this summer and meant we had some of the earliest harvests ever known. On our farm, the combines were put to work a good fortnight earlier than last year and we managed to rattle through harvest at a cracking pace. Normally I’d be worrying about thunderstorms and constantly checking the skies for rain clouds, so it was a first for me.
The impact of conflict
Prices have been good, too; we averaged £300 per tonne, but that’s offset against an enormous rise in input costs. The background to all this is the ongoing war in Eastern Europe. Ukraine and Russia are important cereal growers and exporters, as well as a key source of gas, vegetable oils and agri-fertilisers, so the effects of the conflict are being felt on every farm in Britain. While there is a lack of grain on the world market, we are getting more for our wheat, but the downside is that animal feed, seed and especially fertiliser costs have gone through the roof. Year-on-year, fertiliser is up by around 135%.
On the animal side of the farm, there’s a lot to be happy about. I have my new working border collie, Gwen. Still less than 18 months old, she is a lively, responsive dog and we have bonded beautifully. Another new four-legged friend is our Suffolk Punch foal, Mayflower. She’s a wonderful young filly who is already a firm favourite with our farm park visitors and great news for the future of this critically endangered breed. All our ewes are now pregnant, and the next busy time to look forward to is the spring, when they all start lambing.
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While the war rages on in Ukraine and drought, floods and political unrest in other parts of the world are causing terrible human suffering, I certainly won’t forget how lucky we are on the farm this Christmas with friends, family, beautiful countryside and animals all around – things that I will never take for granted. I expect a lot of Christmas wish lists will mention ‘peace’ and ‘prosperity’ more prominently than usual this year.