By Brian Henderson

I suppose the question just has to be asked – has the 2017 harvest been as bad as that of 1985? Long held up as the benchmark of horrendous harvests, many still have memories long enough to feel a shiver of fear run down their spine at the mere mention of ’85. So, it’s hard to believe that it’s now so long ago that a lot of folk currently working in the industry weren’t even born as we struggled to bring in that year’s crops.

But like the terrible winters of 1947 and 1963, the summer of 1985 has carved it’s mark so deep in the industry’s psyche that even people not around at the time are more than well aware of the impacts of that year’s dreadful harvest – and of the knock-on effects which haunted farmers long afterwards.

This time around, much of the country has been hit by a mixture of continual rain and apparently maliciously timed showers, the arrival of which seemed aimed only at undoing any brief dry spell – just at the point when it looked like there might be a chance of getting back to the work – and in the process cruelly destroying hope.

But some pockets escaped the worst of these events.

And the localised nature of some of the weather events across summer and early autumn has led to huge divergences in opinions of a day’s – and even the season’s – weather from farmers only a few miles apart.

The official rainfall figures for the month past don’t seem to reflect how most farmers would have gauged the season either – but views might have been tempered as much by the timing of the rain as the amount.

Like 1985, as the 2017 harvest progressed – or rather didn’t – desperation to get crops cut and fields cleared for next year’s crops grew.

And the hoped for 16% was soon consigned to fairyland as the moisture meters struck the early and then mid-20s – or even higher. And I know from painful personal experience that, with a few carefully judged tweaks to the settings, a combine can cut grain at 38% moisture – at least for a few hundred yards before cross augers and elevators become blocked with mush.

I wouldn’t recommend the practice though – nor, indeed, would my brother who nurses our geriatric grain drier. But with calibrations on most moisture meters running out of any accuracy much above 25%, the addition of new points such as ‘wet’, ‘very wet’, ‘you’ve got to be joking’, ‘Holy s*it’ and, finally, ‘harvest 2017’, could all have been added to the scale.

So, it was a bit of a tactless move to release official statistics last week which estimated that the Scottish harvest was up by 12% on the year, with grain being harvested as wet as this and with so many fields still to be cut and baled.

And while there were undoubtedly some pretty decent yields out there, the hassle of harvesting them in anything approaching decent fettle far outweighed any benefits from a small increase over last year’s meagre yields – and the effect on quality and marketability of many crops has yet to be assessed.

But while the ramifications of the wet harvest will continue to reverberate for many months, will it deserve its place in the pantheon of poor harvests?

And will 2017 linger in the memory alongside the 1985 imagery of sodden, blackened fields going to waste as combines struggled axle-deep in saturated fields?

While my own memories of 1985 are dim (and I’d be happy for you to believe that was because I was so young, but it’s probably more to do with them being blanked out), I suspect we might actually have had fewer combining days this year.

But that’s got to be set against the sheer capacity which many modern combines have to get the job done – and while their size means there’s fewer of them around, they’re probably better at staying afloat, kitted out as many are with tracks and dual wheels.

And, of course, we now have the benefit of sensors on the header to automatically set the height and tilt to the contours of the field’s slopes.

The benefit of this is often underestimated – as I found out when ours packed in and I insisted on struggling on without it for several days manually.

As I then discovered, the frequent merging of the two jobs of combining and cultivation doesn’t save as much time as you might expect! You would hope that the improved varieties we have now would help them stand better – but the focus on yield which has seen most grain crops maturing later, might actually have added to some of this year’s problems.

Of course there’s no doubt that a wider use of straw stiffeners and fungicides nowadays to treat stem and root diseases, like eye spot and take-all, also helped many crops stand up better, although it has to be said there were far more crops down this year than I have seen for a long time.

And the use of glyphosate as a harvest management tool to ripen crops off and kill out the undergrowth is much more widespread these days with the availability of generic brands seeing the price tumble from the eye-watering cost when Roundup was the only widely available licensed option back in ’85.

But there is a supreme irony in the fact that many of these plant protection products are under threat of de-listing.

For, if we found ourselves struggling to cope when the armoury is still pretty full, it doesn’t do to imagine what it would be like if these key management tools were no longer available to help us in the uphill battle to grow grain crops in Scotland’s challenging climate.

To end on a slightly cheerier note, though, I’m reliably informed that the October following the ’85 harvest was fairly dry and warm, allowing winter crops to be sown into good seed beds. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed…