I must admit that I was probably as surprised as anyone when the board of directors at NFU Scotland pinned its colours to a proposal to share the long-awaited convergence cash out across the board with what they termed a 'sector neutral' proposal.

Now, I’ve no doubt that the letters pages will probably reflect some of the vitriol which this decision has seen lobbed the union’s way in various Facebook postings criticising the proposal to share the fund out equally – but whatever decision they took, it was never going to please everyone.

Some of those criticising the proposal seem to want to set sector against sector by painting the thing as some sort of Robin Hood issue, promoting what they see as a take from the rich to give to the poor approach.

But, just like the Sheriff of Nottingham, the barley baron has long been an extinct breed – and there’s no getting away from the fact that no one sector has a monopoly on feeling hard done by at the moment.

I’ve no doubt I’m probably sticking my head in a hornet’s nest here, but with our business constantly on the verge of performing the splits by having one foot planted in the arable sector and the other in the LFA, I can kinda see both sides of the argument.

So maybe we should start by having a wee look at some of the stats …

It’s an odd thing. While hardly a day goes by without seeing figures for the current slump in the sheep and beef sectors bandied about the headlines, there’s been little or nothing about the backside falling out of the grain markets.

Now I might be considered lazy for failing to check this, but from the number of times I’ve read them in the past few weeks or months, I’m pretty sure that the current figure being quoted for the price drop in the beef market is around 12% on the year – and for lambs around 8% at the moment.

Of course, with the Farmageddon scenario of a no-deal Brexit looking increasingly likely there’s the 'end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it' prediction that these sectors will have a whole host of tariffs heaved upon them, with the most oft-quoted figure standing at around 40%.

So, I would challenge anyone to deny that this would be enough to jigger the market entirely. While there has been at least some recognition of the plight of the sector by the UK Government in the setting of some reciprocal tariffs on beef and especially lamb coming into the country, we all know that this won’t cure the problem.

Taking a look at the arable sector, though – and just to keep it simple stick to the main cereal crops – as I said, it’s a good deal harder to pick up figures. But while the input and capital costs tied up in growing cereals seems to spiral ever upwards, this certainly isn’t reflected in the price the sector has been getting for its grain.

This time last year I’m pretty sure that the spot price for malting barley was well north of £200 a tonne. If you can find a market for it at all just now, I’m told the going rate is somewhere in the mid-£120s – ands that's before any deductions.

If my maths serve, that’s close enough to a 40% drop in price on the year. Feeding barley is just as bad, with a fall from the peak of somewhere in the region of £180 last year, to around the £110 mark this year – so a similar level of fall.

The story isn’t all that much different for wheat. The official harvest estimate this week forecast that there was a 46% increase in the amount produced in Scotland this year and that ain’t gonna see a Scottish premium reinstated.

But, if anything, the situation for oats seems to be even worse. Its higher plantings and big yields more than filled contracts, and there’s little or no spot market existing – apparently because none of the feed manufacturers want to see their cobs crumble. So, any out of contract or rejected oats can be almost impossible to sell!

Before we get too carried away with our own misery, though, the grain sector does at least have some methods of spreading the marketing risks a bit and most contracts offer some form of forward selling for at least a portion of the crop. This is usually based on the futures price with, hopefully at least, a wee premium on top.

So, while the future price earlier in the year might not have looked too tempting with the 2018 harvest prices still fresh in our minds, I would imagine that come harvest 2019, most growers probably found themselves wishing that they’d committed more grain at these levels earlier in the year.

Although we might hear far less about it, the grain trade doesn’t escape from the perils of Brexit either. It, too, is complicated – but WTO tariffs to get grain into the EU currently stand at €95 a tonne for wheat and €93 for barley and €89 a tonne for oats. At current prices, these figures would equate to a tariff rate of around 70% of the market price of feeding barley!

The existence of tariff rate quotas – or TRQs as they are more commonly known – means that there is a bit of get-out clause for some of these exports which allows a certain quantity to be sold to the EU at a reduced tariff rate.

Effectively, this means there’s a bit of a free-for-all between non-EU countries to get grain in at the reduced rate of around €12 tonne for wheat on around 2.5m tonnes – but this year’s exportable surplus could be 2m tonnes in the UK alone. The TRQ for barley is much more limited, with around 307,000 tonnes at €16 a tonne.

Once again, oats are even worse with no TRQ available so selling any raw oats at all into the EU would pretty much be a non-starter. The situation for processed oats is even worse as they’ll attract a higher rate of €170 a tonne, making it very difficult to sell porridge oats to Europe if we end up with a no-deal.

Just this week, the UK Government confirmed that despite the industry’s pleas there would be no tariffs charged on grain imported into the UK.

So this means that while we face the prospect of a tax which would make it non-viable to sell our grain to the EU, the UK Government has effectively thrown our own gates wide open to the cheapest grain in the world, regardless of how it is produced. That's a move which can only drag our prices – and our food standards – down to the lowest common denominator.

Even in the malting market, where we are lucky enough to have a real and high value market on our doorstep in the shape of the distilling trade (meaning that we don’t need to worry about tariffs on our grain), there’s a bit of a double whammy in the offing.

Because after every harvest where there have been big yields of good quality grain, the maltsters buy up as much as they can as cheaply as they can – and by the following harvest, or when the contracts are being drawn up, they are sitting on a whole heap of first-quality grain and holding all the aces when it comes to setting the price.

On top of this, if the threat of trade sanctions from the US of a 25% import duty being slapped on malt whisky imports materialises, then there’s a fair chance that both demand and price will slump.

So, summing up the situation in the arable sector: There's a 40% drop in prices, with the threat of a 70% tariff on sales to the EU, while our biggest domestic outlet looks set to be involved in a trade war with the US.

Anyone want to swap?

It’s certainly not a time for the industry to be splitting into factions then –and maybe rather than pushing Robin Hood forward as a model, it would make more sense to take a leaf out of the Three Musketeers book – and call 'All for one, and one for all,' instead.