Arable Matters by Brian Henderson

A few dry days on the trot during the week past has given at least some access to the land and probably provided some welcome relief to growers – not only from the seemingly endless weeks of rain but also from the constant, all-consuming focus on Covid-19.

Our own area to the west of Perth seems to have been a bit behind some other parts of the country in drying up. While there’s been some activity with catch-up ploughing, top dressing and even some drilling going on, there doesn’t seem to have been the usual level of frenetic activity which a dry spell would normally tend to prompt at this time of year.

I did find myself wondering if the bizarre situation we finds ourselves in with Covid-19 might have been at the root of this, with people taking a closer look at just where they set their priorities.

While there might have been an element of this, my son did point out that, despite the first dry spell of the season, the fact that much of the ground was still soaking probably had something to do with it as well.

But it was good to have something to distract our collective minds from the coronavirus crisis, even for a brief spell – for the desire to keep up with the fast-changing situation has certainly seen me tuning in regularly to the news on the radio in an attempt to keep up with the latest announcements.

Only a few short weeks ago, the prospect of the vast majority of the nation’s citizens being either confined to their homes, or spending their time queuing outside supermarkets within which shelves stand empty would have seemed like something out of a far-fetched sci-fi novel based in a parallel, dystopian universe.

But with such a vision now a disconcerting reality – and with the constant introduction of ever tighter restrictions on what the general public can and can’t do – we are indeed entering what can only be described as uncharted territory.

I couldn’t help but find myself wondering how history, with its great benefit of 20/20 hindsight, might view our current situation. Will it look back reusing old terminology and the years BC will stand for Before Coronavirus and AD, for After the Disease?

Will those in the farming world who believe that, with a few empty shelves encouraging people to value the food which has until now been so readily available, society will have a greater respect for those that feed them be proved right?

While hardly a word has been heard of late about how cattle and the majority of farming practices are somehow responsible for the destruction of the environment, the sudden decline in air travel and other transport has apparently seen huge reductions in global emissions of greenhouse gases – along with dramatic improvements in air quality and other beneficial effects.

So, could we be witnessing the end of globalisation and the reliance on international trade, with its fragile, easily shattered supply lines being consigned to the history books to be replaced by something more resilient with a greater focus on self-sufficiency in issues such as food security?

Only time will tell. But while the scale of the current crisis is yet to be fully judged, the last major global upheaval – the banking crisis back in 2008 – was also marked out as heralding a new world order, where things would be fairer, better regulated and more transparent.

Scarcely a dozen years down the line from what many thought would be a pivotal point in the history of macro-economics, though, and you would be hard-pushed to say that there has been any dramatic improvement or any move toward more ethical trading.

Indeed, with the rise of populist nationalism – be it Britain’s Brexit or Trump’s ‘America First’ – with the abandonment of austerity measures and the apparent adoption of its economic opposite in the shape of financial free-booting, it would be easy to conclude that things have actually become worse.

So, with this in mind (and getting back on-topic) the dramatic shifts in grain prices seen over the past weeks since it has become clear that we in the west will not be immune from the ravages of disease, could, I guess, be interpreted in a couple of different ways.

The movement could be seen as the first signs that there will indeed be a greater recognition for the key role played by the farming sector as the primary producers of raw materials which provide the basis for the entire food chain. Thus marking a societal shift which could see the industry facing a much more secure future than might otherwise have been on the cards.

Alternatively, it could be seen as a more cynical move to cash in early – by those who suspect that with lockdown, transport issues, border difficulties and, perhaps most importantly, panic buying there might be the sort of localised and probably only temporary food shortages on the cards which could allow a killing to be made by supermarkets, food companies and stock-market speculators.

Scotland, however, might find itself in a bit of an interesting situation regarding the sudden hike in futures prices and whereas our grain normally tends to earn a bit of a premium, being produced, as it is, on the doorstep of the distilling industry, reports of a downturn in the whisky trade could see our distance from alternative markets see this premium flipped into a discount.

While it’s likely to be difficult to accurately predict just how current pandemic will affect spirit sales in the longer term, any major impediment to the free flow of trade – together with the continued trade sanctions imposed by the US on malt whisky, which has been estimated to cost the industry £100m in lost sales over the course of a year – isn’t likely to act as a major stimulus to an industry so highly dependant on exports.

But, while one door – or perhaps more accurately, distillery – closes, another opens. And it has been reported that one of the big grain dealers got a major order in for several thousands of tonnes of grain to be used as the raw material for producing the alcohol which is currently being used in great quantities in hand sanitisers, a market which barely registered a few months ago but which has been pushed through the ceiling in the last few weeks.

So life is full of surprises – just a pity more of them couldn’t be pleasant ones …