Well it might fly in the face of what we’ve all assumed to be common sense in recent decades, but it looks like arable farmers could make more money by cropping less of their land.

While many of us might be avoiding looking too closely at some of the wheat which was puddled in last back-end, especially over the past week, I’m not claiming any credit for the proposal to take a more tactical look at what we sow as my own.

The idea was perhaps one of the more unexpected ones to be aired at LAMMA, last week – the UK’s machinery, equipment and technology show, which kicks off the year for all those who are into the latest kit.

The message was actually being put out there by one of the country’s biggest farm consultancy groups, Andersons, who, while warning that as always it can be dangerous to over-react on the basis of one season, said that post-Brexit changes to support were more than likely to prompt a pretty fundamental reassessment of this widely held belief.

Few could deny that the particularly dismal sowing conditions in autumn 2019 – especially south of the Border – have been highlighting a few deep-rooted issues with some of the UK combinable cropping systems. It has been pretty much an article-of-faith over the last few decades that the route to profitability has been through increasing scale – and cropping ever-more acres.

As Richard King head of business research at Andersons told a seminar at the event, for many businesses this has resulted in taking on land at high rents – and quite often some of this has been of somewhat dubious yield-potential as a result of issues such as poor soil structure, high weed burdens outdated drainage systems.

On top of this, additional land is often taken on at a considerable distance from the core farm and what is seldom factored in to any budgeting exercise is the time, and cost of long road journeys, plus the added difficulties of managing land remotely, an area which accounts for some of the greatest hidden expenses in arable businesses.

Of course, large areas and distances can also encourage a blanket approach to agronomy which also adds to costs. An autumn like last year simply serves to shine a light on such issues which consultants have rather tactfully termed ‘overstretch’.

But while there’s no getting away from the fact that we would view it as a waste not to use all the land at our disposal, the economics of combinable crop production are set to alter pretty radically over the next few years as we move into new support systems.

While we might be promised a longer changeover period in Scotland, we’re all trundling relentlessly towards a phasing-out of area-based support. This means that combinable crop production will no longer be ‘underwritten’ by an area payment – a change which will really highlight that cropping poorer areas is likely to be costing you money rather than making it.

So, in the cold light of day, it might seem more sensible to put such areas over to the delivery of ‘public goods’ which qualify for support could prove more profitable.

But before anyone jumps headlong down this road, though, there’s a bit of a caveat to be considered here, in the shape of keeping a close eye on fixed costs when considering not cropping fields – for the old adage that variable costs are often fixed, while fixed costs are highly variable, undoubtedly holds water.

Only a few fixed costs, such as fuel and labour, can be reduced by cropping less, while depreciation on machinery and buildings are more 'lumpy' and are likely to remain static until a major step-change is introduced into the system – like having a serious bit of downsizing on some of the machinery.

So, definitely something to pop in the think-tank and see if it floats.

But the grey cells were also being kicked into action away from the practical events, last week.

In the more rarified setting of the Oxford Farming Conference, the focus of much of the press seemed to fall on an undertaking given by Defra Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, in an 'exclusive' interview to be aired on Countryfile, that the UK Government would walk away from any US trade deal which tied us to accepting chlorinated chicken or hormone beef.

Now, I would hate to be the one to question the intimate knowledge which any cabinet minister had of the industry which their brief covered – or indeed to cast aspersions in the direction of that fine piece of programming which Countryfile represents – but I know there would be plenty who would question if this was a credible vehicle for making this sort of an announcement.

But, despite the headlines which this interview drummed up, I certainly felt that Villier’s actual address and reception at the conference told a very different story.

While her initial decision to break with precedent and step back from making the opening speech at the conference might have handed a considerable advantage to English NFU president, Minette Batters, it was during the question session at the end of the politics session which the Secretary of State showed that she was struggling.

When attempts were made to get her to commit her government to walking away from a trade deal which would put UK farmers at a disadvantage, she simply would not be tied down or give a straight answer to the question.

Villier’s unwillingness to commit to setting up a food standards commission that would scrutinise future trade deals to ensure fair play made me squirm almost as much as she was visibly doing herself.

Indeed, such was the level of this avoidance that when the audience was asked for a show of hands to see who was confident that the government would back UK farmers during the trade deal negotiations that not one single person raised their arm. Not one.

I can’t comment, as I haven’t seen the Countryfile interview, but I can only suppose that can only mean that either:

a), She was keeping her powder dry to make the announcement to Countryfile’s several-million strong viewers, very few of whom are actually involved in the industry (and she has form here as her first public appearance in her Defra post was on Countryfile Live) or;

b), Villiers had found herself on the receiving end of a rather heated 'phone call from Boris telling her to try to save some credibility as she travelled to the farm where the interview took place, no doubt against the backdrop of some suitably cuddly farm animals, or;

c), The chlorinated chicken and hormone beef are the only elements which will be considered – because, after all, who other than farmers actually gives a damn about importing crops which are grown using cultivars, techniques and pesticides which would all be illegal to use in this country?

Whichever the reason, if anyone in the arable sector had been looking to have their confidence boosted in the minister’s effectiveness or the government’s intentions, they would have been left sadly disappointed.