By Brian Henderson

Okay, while it might be a bit of a long shot, anyone turning to this column in the hope of finding some informed and insightful comment on the current economic and political front is likely to be in for a bit of a disappointment.

Before the echoes of ‘no surprise there’ get a chance to die down, full disclosure requires me to tell you that earlier this week the driller tractor managed to blow the bearing on it’s water pump just as I was sowing the end rig of the last field.

So the time I had hoped to spend researching and contemplating (okay, you win, throwing together) this piece was, instead, spent diverting one of the other tractors from its duties and strapping the driller onto it to sow the final few runs on the headlands.

But with the pressure on to make the most of what had been a pretty first class spell of weather it was interesting just how much even little breakdowns could throw progress into jeopardy.

For instance, when one of the hydraulic hoses supplying the driller markers sprung a leak at the weekend, I decided just to press on without them as, with autosteer on the tractor, they’re only really used as a crutch to give an old technophobe like myself a bit of old-school reassurance.

I’d have to admit, though, that one of the major benefits of autosteer was the confidence it gives you to carry on drilling after dark. However, as night approached some glitch in the internal memory of this wonderful piece of technology left me with nothing but the view in the tractor wing mirrors and the seat of my pants with which to steer the drill.

Luckily, a quick crash course in computer re-booting tactics – which involved randomly pressing buttons, deleting files and data and, finally, switching it off and then one again – saw the glitch cleared.

But at least this disclosure might save me from having to repeatedly explain the interesting wiggles which are almost certain to appear in our roadside fields when the crop brairds.

Writing at the beginning of this week, the amazing spell for getting on with the land work simply has to be acknowledged, especially after what seemed to be so many endless weeks of rain and grim wetness.

The change from guddling about with drains in fields still needing to be ploughed only a fortnight ago, to the cloud of dust which is hanging over the valley as I type, has been nothing short of a miracle.

With the focus so firmly on making best use of the dry spell, though, it was almost too easy to forget the wider crisis which was engulfing the rest of society.

Away from the roar of the tractor engines it was noticeably quieter, with far fewer cars on the roads. However, viewed from the fields, there was a distinct increase in the number of joggers, dog walkers and cyclists on the back roads, presumably taking advantage of that self-same lack of cars to get their hour of prescribed exercise during the Covid-19 lockdown.

With the constant flow of high-viz running vests and cycle shorts scooting past on the other side of the hedges it was, however, a bit like a bank holiday – as if Easter had come early.

But with the general populace being threatened with having additional lockdown regulations if they don’t behave themselves and steer clear of others while avoiding any unnecessary travel, I suppose we should appreciate just how lucky we are to be able to still get out and get on with things.

Although it’s far from business as usual for us, compared with many others, the sector does seem to be at least a bit insulated from the worst of the effects of reduced human contact, especially – as has been widely noted – at this time of year with sowing, calving and lambing all in full swing, there really hasn’t been much of a social calendar to disrupt.

While the radio often seemed to focus on nifty ideas as to how people could best spend all the additional time they suddenly found they had on their hands, at peak drilling I’d have to admit that it was at times difficult to sympathise with those who had time on their hands.

It was, however, interesting to hear that, with baking apparently being one of the many pastimes which is seeing a major revival, many of the supermarkets had sold out of flour.

While it might just turn out to be a temporary fad, it could have some knock-on benefits for the cereal sector, especially if there is greater interest in the basic ingredients which are used to produce the nation’s staple foods.

Though it’s true that only a small portion of the wheat used for flour is grown in Scotland, any interest which leads to a better informed public has to be welcomed.

Until recently, the only thing which stirred any attention in this direction was the detection of glyphosate residues which could be detected in flour – along with sniping from the sidelines about the ‘empty calories’ of modern cereal varieties which, it was widely claimed, although containing high levels of starch and sugars – and therefore energy – provided little in the way of other crucial micro-nutrients.

On the latter front, a report out this week from Rothamsted Research Centre actually showed that the white flour we currently produce is the healthiest it has been for more than 200 years.

The study, which compared historic and modern wheat varieties grown side-by-side, showed an increase in dietary fibre and other features beneficial to human health – contradicting the concerns that the push for higher yields has made today’s wheat less healthy than older types.

This focus on white flour is important as it accounts for the vast majority of both commercial and home baking.

The 39 wheats varieties, covering those cultivated over a period of 230 years, were grown three years in succession at Rothamsted – which is also the site of the famous Broadbalk wheat trial, which was established in 1843 and is the world’s longest running experiment.

The report’s lead author, Dr Alison Lovegrove, said that despite concerns over the declining genetic variation found across modern wheat types, there was no evidence that the health benefits of white flour from wheat grown in the UK had declined significantly over the past 200 years.

“In fact, we found increasing trends in several components, notably the major form of dietary fibre. This is despite great increases in the yields of wheat grown over this period,” said Dr Lovegrove.

The team also found the concentration of betaine, which is beneficial for cardio-vascular health, had increased, whilst levels of asparagine – which can be converted to the potentially cancer-causing chemical acrylamide when bread is baked – had decreased.

That wee bit of good news reminded me of the last time there was a bit of panic buying and supplies reaching supermarkets were disrupted – after the Beast from the East – and someone re-penned the Corries’ classic thus:

“No flour in Scotland ... when will we see sliced breid again…”