Despite the mixed picture across the country and between different crop types, the official first estimate of the 2018 harvest released last week showed it to be one of the poorest in Scotland in recent decades – with overall production struggling to pass the 2.6m tonne mark.

Did that come as a surprise to many growers? No Siree – because most had had the evidence in front of their noses that the late, wet and cold spring followed by the near-drought conditions of summer were going to hit yields.

With many crops going in almost a fortnight late and then being cut a fortnight earlier than anyone had expected – and bolting through their growth stages in the interim, the loss of a month’s worth of growing season was bound to have some effect.

The official Scottish Government figures put total grain and OSR production back around 9% on the year – due mainly to a pretty hefty drop in spring barley yields and lower plantings of wheat.

But, despite this year’s figures being pretty close to expectations, NFU Scotland still said that indications from its own survey of growers were, if anything, more pessimistic than the official figures indicated.

The fact remains, however, that although it might have been a totally different year to the waterlogged harvest of 2012, the 2018 harvest could find itself challenging that disastrously wet autumn for the lowest overall cereal production levels this century.

The official stats indicated that spring barley suffered the most this year, with an estimated fall in average yield of around 10%. But, with the area sown up due to less winter wheat being sown in the back end of 2017, overall production of Scotland’s most important cereal crop was expected to have fallen by 7% to a total of 1.3m tonnes, with early-sown crops hardest hit.

Conversely, winter barley yields were expected to have risen slightly, with quality generally good – but a collapse in the acreage sown led to predictions of an 18% drop in production.

Official estimates for crops such as wheat, oats and oilseed rape showed slightly lower yields than 2017 – and reduced areas amplified the fall in overall production.

An updated estimate of production from the Cereal Production Survey will be published in December but, unlike last year when there was a bit of an uproar at the initial estimates as many still had boggy, ruined fields to cut – most of the national crop had been through the combine by the time the first estimates were published, so too much revision shouldn’t be necessary.

But, while year on year variation is to be expected, what should be of more concern to Scotland’s arable farmers than this year’s figures is the fact that that the overall trend in production over the past four years had been downwards. This stalling of production and levelling off of crop yields has to be a worry – not just for farmers but also for the growing global population which will have to rely on continued improvements in yield if it is to avoid hunger.

For we’ve pretty much maxed-out the area of land suitable for growing crops already and there’s growing opposition to ploughing up any virgin land.

While the reasons for the current plateau in yields might be complex, they highlight the fact that growers need to have some of the unnecessary hurdles which are thrown in their way removed – and for the uptake of new technologies to be encouraged rather than being held back by resistance drummed up by ill-informed lobbying groups, often working to questionable agendas.

While we stand amidst an apparent stalling of improvements, the four-fold increase in average cereal yield which occurred during the 50 years between 1940 and 1990 were driven not only by the continuous scientific and technological innovation, but also by the encouragement of its uptake at farm level.

The list of possible reasons for the recent slowdown in yield improvements is pretty well known and we can’t ignore the fact that a lot of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked on this front and that the rate of return is bound to slow down as we get closer to the upper potential of any particular crop.

Whether there’s evidence that innovation has slowed down depends on who you speak to. While there’s no arguing with the fact that we’re using less in the way of fertiliser and sprays than we used to, there was initially plenty of room for these to be better targeted.

But, of course, having far fewer to choose from as licences are either revoked or not granted in the first place reduces our ability to compete in the ongoing race against the build up of resistance to our shrinking armoury.

At the more scientific end of the spectrum, the virtual moratorium on the commercial use of gene edited crops can only mean we’re working with one hand tied behind our backs.

But to keep the eco-warriors happy there might be some truth in the fact that some of our soils are becoming a bit degraded – with too much fertiliser, not enough lime and too many heavy tractors working in the wet just highlighting the fact that we maybe don’t respect the complex nature of our soils enough.

Of course, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made abundantly clear at the beginning of the week, the threat and reality of more erratic weather patterns is also likely to affect our ability to produce ever more.

Maybe I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but the fact that we have always been good at farming, the previous year’s crops might be play its part. If there’s not much variation between seasons, then viewing the crop through the lens of the previous year’s season makes little difference – but when it swings from cold and wet to hot and dry our coping strategies are likely to find themselves at the wrong extreme of the swinging pendulum.

But we also need to keep an eye on how we interpret information and avoid choosing the wrong strategy. As an example of this, the harvest statistics mentioned several times that it was the earlier sown spring barley crops which seemed to suffer the biggest yield penalties.

So, should we then curb our impatience and sow next year’s spring crops later?

Maybe, but not necessarily. I was mulling this over with wiser heads than my own, who took a clearer view and pointed out that the early sown crops would generally have been put in on the lighter land which always dries of more quickly as it holds on to less water. Given this last fact it probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference during the time that the dry spell continued whether they’d been sown early or late.

Conversely, the later crops would have been sown in damper areas and onto heavier ground which was better at maintaining water reserves – and while there might have been a correlation between early sowing and poorer yields, it wasn’t necessarily cause and effect.

So it still pays, look before you leap... to the wrong conclusion.