At 3am on the night of November 1 we completed our 15th harvest in Ukraine in a catchy, but productive campaign for potatoes.

Quality has been good, with less bruising this year and potato yields and prices ahead of budget at well over 30 tonnes/ha sold yield, with some varieties well over 40 tonnes/ha sold. That was a good start in a first year for our new venture, the Central Plains Group.

Temperatures throughout Ukraine and Southern Russia had been mild, allowing backward rape crops sown in dry conditions to catch up a little. The year has been characterised as too dry and then too wet in large parts of Europe.

Southern Russia remains drier than average, as does eastern Ukraine. In Poland, drilling conditions were better and yields in the northern delta have been good.

Bronek, our excellent manager there for many years, has achieved the top Polish winter wheat yield of 11.6 tonnes/ha of a milling variety this season.

What a week in politics, with a Biden win, Cummings and goings in No 10, improving odds of an EU trade deal and a number of vaccines, arriving like buses, offering greater prospects of more ‘normality’.

It is our hope that Biden’s eventual appointment will improve troubled US relations with both Cuba and Ukraine.

It was a surprise that Cummings, he of the great eyesight and ‘superforecaster’ reputation, didn’t see his Brexit coming? There was much speculation over the contents of his exit cardboard box.

My inside sources inform me that it was actually Schrödinger’s Brexit Cat, which can be both in and out at the same time, whilst having and eating it’s ‘oven ready’ cake!

It is deeply ironic that new UK customs rules are causing a jobs boom in both Romania and India to deal with the extra paperwork required by hauliers.

A shortage of experienced UK customs workers and hence escalating salaries for trained UK staff, have led to major export companies hiring Romanians. Why Romanian?

As the last country to join the EU in 2007, it had developed great expertise in dealing with EU customs regulation. That will be important given the hundreds of millions of extra customs documents that will need to be filled out by exporting companies.

This private sector hiring is on top of 50,000 new UK Government customs officials to be appointed, more than the entire staff of the European Commission and Parliament combined.

The Annual British Crop Protection Conference was held last week and as usual it brought all aspects of the discipline together, from practical forward looking farmers, through manufacturers and advisers to regulators.

Once a booming conference, with many new actives launched each year in Brighton. Now it’s a shadow of its former self, not just due to Covid-19-induced virtuality, but due to much tighter times in the industry, with no new active launches.

Lower margins and competition, increased regulation and discovery costs, and the merging of more than 40 manufacturers to a meaningful half dozen, have all taken their toll.

It was still a good conference to attend. We have lost more than 50% of our insecticide active ingredients since 2008 through revocation or withdrawal, from 56 to 26. All this at a time when pest threats are increasing with milder winters and only one new insecticide group launched in the last 10 years.

The pesticide regulation is one of the myriad of aspects of our lives that Brexit will affect, increasing costs and duplicating bureaucracy. This was much discussed by a number of papers.

The changes will have a direct effect in the field, where it counts. The UK Government will go its own way on Product Approval and Registration after January 1, 2021.

As yet they have not even launched their stakeholder consultation on new processes and seem ill-prepared (as yet) for the changes.

There will be no mutual recognition of products and hence a complete end to parallel imports in six weeks time. As many farmers know, parallel imports have historically often put a floor in the market and kept manufacturers UK prices in check.

As the UK Government has not yet decided on its new registration process, all existing ‘product approvals’ will automatically be extended for three years until December, 2023.

Manufacturers will be faced with additional duplicate fees and process to register new active ingredients in the UK. This extra cost may well limit the products available to UK growers for use in minor crops, or even minor uses in major crops due to increased registration costs.

The UK will ‘take account’ of EU bans on pesticides it was said at the conference, but will not be bound to implement them. This may well sound good news for farmers, but may well aggravate consumer relations and restrict our food exports.

We cannot expect to ban chlorinated chicken, or hormone-treated beef and expect the EU to accept UK imported produce treated with pesticides they have banned. This is what the quite reasonable EU ‘level playing field’ is all about.

A top EU crop protection expert who gave an excellent paper on registration was asked in the Q and A, what would be his advice for the UK Government in developing a new, efficient and cost effective Pesticide Registration Scheme. His advice was simple ‘come back.’

It may well be that Scottish growers face the worst of all worlds in not gaining safer, more effective new actives and yet being banned by their overseas market from using the older products they replace.

Interestingly, the UK will be likely to set its own maximum residue limits (MRLs) in sold produce, thus again muddying the domestic consumer and export waters mightily.

And here’s the rub, these new UK post-Brexit rules on crop protection products will not apply to Northern Ireland, where mutual recognition of EU products will remain.

One can only imagine the dynamic of trade this might create across the Irish Sea! Perhaps shares in Irish Sea ferry companies would be a good buy?

On a more serious note, the opportunities for illegal trade between NI and the mainland will provide fuel and finance for both smuggling gangs and terrorist organisations, often one and the same thing in Northern Ireland.

There was much talk and papers on two other areas at the Conference-IPM and Precision Application. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) will form the basis of the new post-Brexit Environmental Land Management structures.

As the first EU-accredited IPM adviser in Scotland in the mid-1980s, I see IPM as nothing new, nor to be afraid of. Most good Scottish growers have been practising it for decades already in one form or another by using low doses, varietal resistance, non inversion tillage, spray adjuvants, spray thresholds, mixed rotations and cover crops, organic manures or low drift nozzles.

Many of them covered in the SNH TIBRE Manual and I have employed IPM philosophy and technology throughout my four decades as a practising agronomist and active environmentalist, as have many others.

My concern is that a more prescriptive one size fits all ‘blueprint’, which does not take account of Scottish climatic and other limitations, is implemented to qualify for financial support. IPM is site, crop and grower specific if nothing else.

There is a worrying religious zeal akin to Exaggeration Rebellion climate alarmism in some of the proponents of regenerative agriculture. So called ‘regenerative agriculture’ is not the same as IPM and is based on far less research and intellectual rigour.

There is a risk that these two approaches become synonymous and they are absolutely not.

More on precision application next time, but as noted previously, I don’t expect significant, robust practical advances in the field over the next five years.

Despite all the publicity surrounding the technology, this has more to do with fund raising froth by startups than farmer benefit as yet. The big figures paid for acquisitions by major ag companies are more a result of fear of missing out than real immediate cost effective progress for farmers.

It’s all seductive, but smoke (and mirrors) currently.

There is little sign of the global opportunity trumpeted by Alistair Jack in his statement of platitudes, welcoming the new Agriculture Bill reported in these pages last week.

There will be big changes in UK arable farming over the next 5-10 years, with 65% of farms dependent on their survival on agricultural support payments, which will be gone by 2027. Larger farms will have reduced payments of 25% less this next year.

Our top global grain competitivity in Ukraine is based on lower land and labour costs, with more freedom to operate as farmers, whilst maintaining good social and environmental stewardship.

There is little sign of a major collapse in land or rental values or labour costs acting in favour of Scottish farming businesses in this Brave Bew Brexit, post-Covid, Carbon Zero world. There is every sign of reduction in support, collapsed exports, increased carbon costs and cheap imported food.

So Messrs Jack and Eustice’s ill-founded and empty words on global competition and diversification are merely ideologically driven wishful thinking for the overwhelming majority of growers ... sadly.

Hope against hope that, at one second to midnight, a deal will be struck, but political dogma and rhetoric may well Trump common sense and livelihoods.