Arable Matters by Brian Henderson

At the end of the film Braveheart, in which Mel Gibson gives our own William Wallace a Hollywood make-over, his final words were a loud roar of 'Freeeeedom' – which echo around the country as his ordeal of being hung, drawn and quartered by the minions of the dastardly English king, Edward 1 comes to its inevitable, fatal end.

Now, while not wishing to place myself in the same sort of league as the mighty Guardian of Scotland, I might be at risk of committing a commercial act of similarly fatal outcome – and in the same cause.

Like many cereal growers, once autumn arrived we were trying to draw up some sort of cropping plan for next year which wouldn’t leave us wide open to the likely knock-on effects of reduced demand and oversupply in the malting barley market. At that time, a plentiful supply of top-notch crop from the last couple of years looked set to be carried over as far as next year’s harvest.

However, while our line of thinking was almost entirely focused on the interplay between the Covid-19 situation and the vagaries of the Brexit negotiations, we were, it has to be admitted, pretty much caught totally unawares when the grain merchant we had worked with and held malting barley contracts with for decades, announced that it had sold up to another business. That threw yet another curve ball into the equation for us.

But while WN Lindsay might be set to continue to operate under that name, we discovered that, as our three-year malting barley contract had reached its end at this year’s harvest, any subsequent contracts would now be based on those of the new owners of the company, Simpsons Malt.

Now I’ve no problem with the new company. They’ve a long track record and have undoubtedly done a good job on the malting front – and, despite being headquartered just south of the Border, have even apparently lodged proposals to set up new malting facilities in Speyside to service the distilling trade. This sort of investment simply has to be applauded.

But their latest acquisition could put them in line to control almost half the malting barley crop grown in Scotland, a move which must come with a big responsibility.

With such a large share of a fairly specialist market, though, what I did find worrying me more than a little was what lay in the terms of the contracts we were being offered.

Now of all years, this is probably not the one to be picky or bull-headed about the small print in some of these contracts – as having a secure market surely has to make it worth being a little bit flexible in this area.

Though it looked like the pricing matrix, which allowed less to be sold forward on futures price than before and would have left us a bit worse off this year, given that circumstances vary from harvest to harvest, it might turn out differently in another year, thus ironing out, as the terms do, some of the peaks and troughs.

So I might have been willing to let that pass with a 'what you gonna do' shrug of the shoulders.

But what is causing me more of a moral dilemma is the fact that the contract seems to stipulate that the seed for the crop must be purchased from Simpsons, under one of the clauses which states that: ‘The Goods have been grown from certified seed supplied by the Company. Certified seed excludes all farm saved seed regardless of its provenance’.

While it could be argued that such a clause is, in reality, no real biggie and it would simply help the buyer ensure full traceability, it would, however, chip away yet another small piece of the control and freedom which we as farmers have always enjoyed over the choice of our seed.

We tend to use a fair amount of farm-saved seed and while the royalty payments which have to be made sometimes seem to be a lot – and mean that the financial advantage of using FFS might sometimes be borderline – we have to accept that the research for the successful (and the many, many unsuccessful) varieties which breeders produce has to be paid for.

But we also like to think that using our own saved seed from fields that we have rogued and sprayed entirely under our own control, gives us a pretty fair degree of our own traceability and transparency. Also, it comes with it the security that we’re not importing any new weeds, pest or diseases from further afield.

While we rely on fairly new commercial varieties and buy in certified seed on a regular basis, there could be an argument that multiplying up our own seed has a little bit of the old landrace theory which implies that natural selection will favour the varieties best suited to a particular habitat in it follows sound science.

For, while a variety remains stable, it might be argued that the best performing individuals perhaps have the best synergy with the local soil root micro-biome or rhizosphere, and so will perform better when sown as a second generation.

Lest I get bogged down in pseudo-science, however, it’s probably the fact that we’ll be losing another bit of our freedom to decide which worries me the most.

The industry has already seen some challenges to this freedom. While the creation of hybrid varieties might offer yield and other advantages, these have to be balanced against an unstable second generation which means new seed must be bought in every year.

Some of the breeders working on early generation GM crops were also accused of building so-called 'terminator' genes into their germ lines which would stop subsequent use of farm-saved seed – an approach which drew considerable criticism, especially for crops grown in developing countries.

Moves to increase reliance on a specific brand, or manufacturer is a commercial practice which has operated successfully across the board. You only need to look at how buyers of Apple products, be it I-Pads, Macs, or I-Phones are forced to rely on the parent company.

While these gadgets might be field-leading, the proud new owners are tied down to purchasing any accessories, upgrades or compatible devices almost exclusively from the parent manufacturer.

Apparently, even the new Land Rover Defender, which by all accounts has some amazing off-road technology, has taken the same approach. This means that it will be far more difficult to modify these vehicles to the many uses to which the old Defender and the previous series Land Rovers were often adapted.

So, while it might be easy to shrug the shoulders and sigh, resignedly, that such a restriction is just another sign of the times, when the chips are down – as they currently are – it might just be time to make a stand.

Increasingly it looks like farming continues to have its freedoms to make its own decisions and operate independently in the market further curtailed – while still being relied upon to take all the risks associated with sowing, growing and harvesting the crop.

So, while William ‘Mel’ Wallace probably never said it, it might be time to unite the clans - and for growers to shout: “They may make take our barley, but they’ll never take our freedom ...”