The last couple of weeks have seen the annual brief flurry of interest in the arable side of things in the form of events and demonstration days – albeit they took place in virtual format this year.

So, it looks like the sector might have to start going against the grain if it is to survive in the new climate change driven future.

With only around 15% of Scotland’s available farmland suitable for growing crops, the sector punches well above its weight when it comes to the economic impact on the both the country’s overall agricultural output and in the upstream production of goods and the provision of jobs.

So it might seem a bit surprising that Arable Scotland, along with Cereal Live! down south (although by dint of being on-line they could be viewed as global events this year), have been the only big annual events devoted to this important area of agriculture which acts as the industry’s power house.

This sector supplies not only much of the raw material for the livestock industry but also for the country’s growing food and drink sector, and underpins the hugely successful whisky trade.

Although the livestock sector, with its host of animals – ranging all the way from cute and fluffy lambs to impressive and imposing bulls – normally features large at virtually every agricultural show and event around the country, the crop growing side tends to play only a small supporting role, with the prizes handed out for best sample of barley, biggest turnip or best matching potatoes confined to a small and often overlooked sideshow.

While the well-documented image of hardy sheep and cattle farmers battling against the elements to bring newborn lambs and calves successfully into the world has gained the livestock boys considerable public sympathy in recent years, the same probably can’t be said for cereal growers who, with their penchant for big tractors and shiny new combines, have only gained a reputation for slowing down the traffic on the country’s highways and byways. As a result, probably haven’t garnered quite as much in the way of sympathy.

But a look at the fairly harsh financial figures thrown up in the recent Scottish Farm Business Survey highlighted the fact that, along with dairy, cereal and general cropping farms are generally more profitable and receive lower average support payments than their livestock equivalents – indicating that the arable sector is closer to being viable in purely economic terms.

However, things are still far from plain sailing in the sector – and some of the major challenges facing crop growers have been highlighted recently at events like Arable Scotland.

For while much of the livestock sector is held back by low productivity due to it taking place on poorer land with considerable meteorological drawbacks, Scotland’s arable sector suffers from the same disadvantages, albeit to a lesser degree.

Even on the areas which can be cropped, there is still a pretty hefty limit placed on the actual range of crops which can be economically grown, especially compared with land south of the Border and in much of the rest of Europe.

This has resulted in everybody relying on a fairly small selection of crops – and I guess it would be fair to say that this range has diminished further in recent decades as the move to larger units has seen both crop management and marketing simplified and streamlined.

While there is sound economic reasoning behind the country’s focus on meeting the needs of the two main 'real' markets on our doorstep – feed for livestock and the raw materials for whisky – this has not only left the sector wide open to the economic performance of these two areas, but further increased an underlying reliance on a limited range of crops.

Every indicator is pointing at a move towards a more sustainable, greener economy post-Covid period – with climate change almost certain to be a major steering force in future policy development.

So, an important focus of last week’s arable event was to highlight the real need to find other crops for the sector to grow – and in the process reduce the industry’s reliance on fertiliser and pesticide inputs.

With a continued decline in the armoury of pesticides during the past few decades, growers are beginning to make a move towards what the scientists have been calling Integrated Pest Management – but most of us just view as taking a broader approach to controlling pests and disease.

As well as making full use of varietal disease resistance, this approach includes changes to cropping patterns, extended rotations and less reliance on growing crops under a ‘monoculture’ regime.

Although it’s not likely that we’re going to turn to growing grapes, yams and cassava (in the short term at least!), getting breeders to look at improving the suitability of a range of crops grown in central and northern Europe and tailoring them to cope with Scottish conditions would certainly be an important step towards achieving a more sustainable cropping regime. Plus, maybe looking back at some of those which we grew in the past.

The recent call for a protein strategy for Scotland is a case in point and it’s easy to see the benefits of legumes, like peas and beans, with their glorious ability to fix nitrogen – both for themselves and following or co-planted crops.

They look like an obvious choice for any sector wanting to reduce its reliance on fertiliser inputs. But, in the real world, anyone who has ever gone against the grain in this manner and grown them will be more than aware that quite a bit of work needs to be done towards stabilising yields, which tend to vary from 2.5 tonnes per acre one year to 0.5 tonnes the next. For beans, at least, breeding them to be ready for harvest sometime before mid to late December might be a good idea.

So, it was surprising to find that there has been a 'Scottish' bean which around for a few years – and some venerable plantsman had handed some seed into the Hutton Research Institute, informing that they could ripen off as early as August. Should we learn more about this possible Godsend?

While combining peas have a habit of wallpapering themselves to the ground before they can be harvested in Scotland, those in the know have been planting them along with spring barley which, if the right variety is chosen, can act as pea-sticks and keep the crop upright.

We’ve actually tried this but with some mixed results – mainly as weed control can be pretty tricky, growing two such different crops together.

Lentils is another crop mentioned and while I suspect we might be quite a long way to go before we get a variety of this suited to Scotland, apparently they can be grown in some areas of Sweden and there’s a firm in England currently selling the produce of their third year’s harvest.

One of the more unusual crops mentioned aimed at increasing our crop range was hemp. It was made plain that Scotland had a strong history of growing this crop, but it isn’t of the sort that could be used recreationally – its focus is on fibre for making rope, sails and fabric.

Apparently it’s getting the reputation of being a bit of a wonder crop on the nutritional front as well and can be used in many different ways. One of its big bonuses as far as Scotland is concerned is the fact that it can perform quite well on pretty average land and is well suited to our climate.

A hemp growers’ group has been set up to investigate the potential of the crop and to boldly seek out new markets.

Even although there’s virtually no narcotic in the fibre version of the plant – with someone famously stating that you’d need to smoke a spliff the size of a telegraph pole to get any effect – you do still need a licence to grow the crop, however.

So, lots of new crops being looked at – it’ll be interesting to see if growing them ever becomes a viable proposition, or if they variously remain a pipe dream, or a might have bean!