HOW should we sum up this year’s harvest?

Now that most folk have gathered in the crop and minds are turning to getting next year’s crop in the ground, it’s probably safe to look back, if not in anger, then perhaps with some bemusement.

I guess the closest to hitting the mark is that old classic – and apparently contradictory – farming line: “Not as bad as I’d expected – mind you I didn’t expect that it would be.”

The inherent paradox in the statement somehow puts the finger on the industry’s split personality, revealing that under the pessimistic, gloomy, cynical nature which we are usually so keen to portray, there lurks an inextinguishable flicker of hope. It’s one that tries to convince us that things might not actually be all that bad and that we might mange to come through yet another year in one piece.

Let’s face it, it’s that wee glimmer that keeps the industry going. If we succumbed to some of the more negative and discouraging views which are put about in the farming papers, the market gossip or at the local watering hole, there’s no getting away from the fact that tractor sales have been on the up over recent months – or that hardly a week goes by just now without reports of near record prices being churned out at the seasonal tup sales.

Surely these are signs of some confidence in the future, some belief that the individuals handing over the lolly are convinced they are somehow going to buck the very trend which they were probably busy telling everyone was set to engulf the industry and sweep us all the way to hell in a hand-cart.

Of course, while maintaining the right balance between either end of these bi-polar tendencies of unremitting pessimism and blind optimism is important to keep a business on track, it may be that some achieve this by constantly swinging from one end to the other.

However, getting back to the post harvest round-up, it probably won’t be a year for the record books – other than for the tenacity of barley awns and the amount of variation seen in crops around the country.

For while some seemed to suffer terribly from the wet spring and dry summer across the country, others only a few miles away seemed to be quite happy with their crops. I guess localised rainfall and soil types played an even bigger role in determining yield than normal, and even sowing dates could prove to be a significant factor.

For ourselves, it was definitely a case of the not as bad as I’d expected, but I didn’t expect it would be – or, being truthful, perhaps that I was hoping it wouldn’t be.

While the wheats seemed to be settled in and rooted by the time the dry spell hit, allowing the extra sunshine to boost specific weights, some of the spring barley on the lighter land looked pretty awful – and hopes certainly weren’t running high here. And I’d have to admit that cutting some of the barley at almost twice the normal speed to keep the riddles loaded, didn’t buoy up these hopes.

However, although the crop could easily have been described as bonsai barley – with the shortest straw I’ve ever seen – the grain yields in the light land spring barley might have been back on the running average, didn’t prove to be the disaster we’d imagined it might be.

The bout of straw, on the other hand, was actually worse than we thought and while the heavier land helped us get enough for our own needs, there was nowhere near as much as normal to sell.

Grain quality seemed to hold up well though and it was all whisked off by the merchants at top speed this year.

With the spring crops being sown fairly late and then the early harvest, they probably lost a full month’s worth of the growing season – so you couldn’t really expect high yields in such a truncated season.

While some of the yields might have been back a bit, the fact that the crops were being cut at around the 15/16/17% moisture mark made the job that bit easier for the combine. With the barley happily sitting at this level for a few days until it was lifted and the wheat and oats only needing a quick tickle through the drier, the cutting and most of the drying was finished before the end of August.

So, compared with the wet, drawn out harvests of recent years, 2018 might be remembered for being a bit easier on both man and machine.

On the price front, though, it has been an extremely difficult season to call – with the seemingly endless upwards march lasting all the way almost to harvest, where a seasonal dip came as no surprise.

But more volatility has become apparent in recent weeks – with the ‘will they won’t they?’ question hanging over the possibility of curbs on wheat exports from Russia playing a big part in keeping the grain trade living on its nerves. Whether the Russian’s are indulging in a bit of political brinkmanship here might be open to speculation, but it wouldn’t be the only arena in which they are playing this game lately.

A bit closer to home, the announcement of the proposed closure of the Vivergo bioethanol plant, last week, did its bit to give localised markets a bit of a kicking. Accounting for the purchase of over 1m tonnes of wheat from 900 growers in the north of England, the move is likely to have considerable impact on suppliers – and remove a market that sucked in a lot of grain from just south of Scotland’s borders.

It might just be my suspicious mind, but I did wonder if there was an element of political brinkmanship going on here too. The actual announcement was that it ‘proposed’ to cease production by the end of the month – leaving the issue open to change, while pointing the finger of blame sternly in the direction of the UK Government’s reluctance to move ahead with plans to increase the amount of bioethanol which has to be included in petrol.

So, will the effects be as bad as we expect?