View from the East by Dr Keith Dawson

Our catchy harvest continues in Ukraine, with patchy rain and even the odd hail storm damaging late harvested rape.

Cereal yields are down so far in Russia and Ukraine, but area estimates in Russia have been revised upwards putting pressure on prices.

The Scottish Farmer:

While Irish cereal yields are significantly down, with many crops with green late tillers, our Polish rape, in contrast, hit 4.3 tonnes per ha sold and our breadmaking wheat was 9-10 tonnes per ha on the delta.

It's proving a good year to be majoring on potatoes in Ukraine, as our new business currently does in its first year with 500ha awaiting harvest. Potato prices are somewhat in the doldrums in Europe, but are more buoyant in Ukraine due to dry conditions in the South and East.

Tatties are a crop which served us well in the early years of our previous highly successful farming operation here. Hence our investment in machinery and storage – pictures of which are with this feature.

The Scottish Farmer: The Scottish Farmer:

Despite cheaper gas prices, drying costs are much higher than a normal year, due to the stop start nature of the harvest operations and rain. Rain which has kept our potatoes growing strongly and trial digs are highly encouraging. Early processing demand is at higher than budgeted prices, so that bodes well.

The drier weather earlier in the year has hit local rape yields, which are almost harvested now. The current showery weather is hitting breadmaking quality, just as the wheat harvest starts, increasing fusarium mycotoxin threat.

Meanwhile, high blight pressure in our potatoes, due to high humidity and temperatures in the high 23°C, continues. Fortunately, our good anti-resistance strategy and bespoke mixtures, together with speedier uptake and rainfastness with adjuvants is working well so far, even in our susceptible crisper, Lady Claire.

Potatoes are the most productive major food plant, producing three times as much energy per ha as cereal crops. Whilst potatoes have served us and Eastern Europe generally well, they have surprisingly not always been universally welcome.

It took a long time for the crop to spread from its first European foothold in the Canary Islands, where much early selection and breeding was done. Initially, they were adapted to 12-hour days and shorter day length than European summertimes.

The early 18th century English Church initially forbade their flocks from eating them as they weren't mentioned in the Bible. Slightly later, with no doubt an anti-Irish angle, they were seen as a Catholic plot with cries of "No potatoes, no Popery!"

As the potato varieties of the day looked like leprous fingers, around the same time, they were also banned for human consumption by the French Government as a potential cause of the leprosy! Frederick the Great can take a lot of the credit for their spread in Europe due to their much lower risk than grain harvests of being commandeered by invading armies during a war-torn period of European history.

The Law of Unintended Consequences continues in these Covid-19 times, with Reckitt reporting Dettol sales well up but Durex well down. Social distancing has its effects! Overall alcohol consumption has decreased, too, by a staggering 0.5bn litres in the last four months year on year. The last two facts may not be unrelated?

The increase in home drinking was far outweighed by the fall in drinking in clubs, pubs and restaurants. Demand for barley will be affected by these dynamics.

Whilst beer and wine shop sales were up, champagne sales 'buck'-ed the trend, causing a crisis in French vineyards. There are harsh calls by famous brands such as Moet and Piper (Brut force?) for a sharp cut in grapes destined for the fizzy vats to keep prices up. Vineyard owners are rebelling, as they face ruin without normal sales.

Grape yield is fixed by agreement with champagne houses annually. Vine farmers are sticking at a 20% cut on last year's 10t/ha ha agreed yield, whilst the houses push for 40%. This in a year when vines are yielding up to 60% higher than 2019.

The sector's annual turnover is similar to Scotch whisky at €5bn per annum, revenue will likely fall by a third this year.

There are two cohorts emerging from Covid lockdown, the fitter and the fatter. As a population we exercised more and many gave up smoking and surprisingly 35% drank less. The fitness boom reminds me of the running/cycling boom in Ireland during the 2008 banking crisis, with many laid off workers working out more.

I co-founded two new businesses in January – a high end cycle shop in the City of London and our new potato growing and processing operation for starch and crisps in Ukraine.

In March, with Covid lockdown in Central London and Covid lockout in terms of border controls for Ukraine, these new investments looked problematic. With the current cycling boom and increased demand for crisps, more by good fortune than good foresight, we have benefited from both the fitter and fatter in the Covid spectrum.

Both businesses have relied on flexible, hard working, well trained, loyal and professional teams on site. A requisite for any successful business.

Talking of successful businesses, I quoted in my last column 'governments are not good at picking winners.' I didn't expect to be proved correct quite so quickly.

One of the Brexit 'dividends' we have received was being removed from the EU high level orbiting satellite project, Galileo. This GPS navigation network, which can pinpoint to 1cm, was very useful for precision farming and cost £10bn.

In response to this, government, initiated by Cummings and without proper due diligence, spent £0.5bn on a bankrupt unproven low orbit satellite network OneWeb to replace Galileo. In a very real sense, gambling all on 'in the Red'.

Oneweb doesn't have a GPS navigation capacity, nor is it adequate for mobile phone applications without further massive investment. Still, what can you expect from the joined up thinking that launches a major obesity fighting campaign and restaurant 'Eat Out to Help Out' vouchers in the same week. An acceptable US trade deal for UK farmers is looking more like a unicorn every day.

Three books that have been on my summer lockdown reading list might be of interest to readers? Matt Ridley's excellent '"How innovation works' presents a compelling case for both the desperate need for innovation and the process being more stepwise, bottom up through exchanges of ideas than light bulb moments to an overriding plan.

There are fascinating chapters on both food and energy, including a section on that hero of our times nitrogen fertiliser and the fascinating innovation process leading to its commercial production. Perhaps the newly commercialised nitrogen fixing bacterium, gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, may move the fixing of nitrogen from the factory to the field for grain crops in time?

Scottish ag innovation was highlighted by the excellent Virtual Arable Scotland last month, driven by the James Hutton Institute, SRUC and SSCR.

A far better investment than OneWeb is the new French pilot nuclear fusion reactor commissioned this week. Cheaper, cleaner energy may in time reduce nitrogen prices.

The use of nitrogen fertiliser has saved more wildlife than any other factor or legislation by sparing habitat from the plough by dramatically increasing productivity from less land tilled. A drier, but no less interesting read is 'Feeding the people – the politics of the potato', by Rebecca Earle.

My final reading choice is the excellent Bjorn Lomborg's latest book 'False alarms: How climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor and fails to fix the planet.' An important new book in light of the way the Covid pandemic has given us a mere glimpse of what an Extinction Rebellion/Thunberg future will look like.

Despite us currently spending £0.5 trillion on climate change measures, it is a poor return in both environmental and financial terms. The dreadful Paris Climate Treaty returns only 11p benefit to the £ expended. The inarguable fact from the hard data is that there has been an historical global decrease in droughts, cyclone strengths, and wildfires in recent decades.

Even the IPCC belatedly acknowledge increase in extreme weather events due to climate change is 'highly unlikely'. Sea levels are only rising at 3.3mm pa (exactly the same average rate for the last 170 years).

Lomborg presents an optimistic, pragmatic and above all rigorously data-driven case that climate panic is an unsoundly based toxic new religion. His case that adaptation and innovation, and investment in health, education and reducing poverty, will bear greater fruit for humanity than poorly targeted climate change measures is a compelling one.

The Scottish Farmer:

Meanwhile, the global harvest continues to be gathered in to feed the world. A harvest driven by those two miss-portrayed environmental 'villains', nitrogen and CO2. Hopefully, time and education will bring a more balanced appreciation of these two superhero molecules that feed and cloth us. #FarmingNeverStops