At last! – We have a Brexit deal done along with two different Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out so we can only hope that 2021 is an improvement on the backend of last year and now we have some degree of optimism to get the new year underway.

There is, however, a lot to be sorted out with the deal – as ever the devil will be in the detail and we will no doubt wait for quite some time until all the small print is digested and presented in a form that people can understand.

Before looking forward to this year’s activities, we should tidy up last year’s weather-related harvest which Defra had updated yet again to give some 'final' estimates for last year.

UK wheat production is now estimated at 9.658m tonnes and this is a 40.5% decrease year-on-year and would be the lowest UK wheat harvest since 1981. The wheat area is now estimated at 1387m ha and is 23.6% below 2019 figures.

This revised estimate comes from the UK average yield which has now been put at 7t/ha, which is down 0.2t/ha from a previous forecast and compares to a five-year average of 8.4t/ha.

Barley production is now revised downwards to 8.117m tonnes and this total is still above the five-year average of 7.2m tonnes.

The Scottish total barley production increased year-on-year by 7.4% to 2.086m tonnes and the Scottish area and yield both increased by 3.5% and 3.2%, respectively.

The area was estimated at 302,000ha, which was the highest since 2015 and yield was estimated at 6.9 tonnes/ha.

The 2020 harvest result was due to a year of extremes regarding the weather, which saw the sunniest spring and wettest February on record in the UK and was either the third or fourth warmest on record as well as a result of climate change which is affecting our national temperature records.

February was the wettest February on records going back to 1862, with the UK recording 237% of its average rainfall and was also the fifth wettest of any calendar month on record.

Of the top 10 wettest winters, four have occurred since 2007 and seven since 1990 and there has been a 17% increase in the total rainfall. All four UK nations recorded their sunniest spring judged by Met Office records dating back to 1919.

It was interesting to read Jim Brown’s recent article in The SF quoting record rainfall in his area of 49.5 inches with still nine days to go to the end of the year and mentioning his record driest year of 2003, when he had 25.75 inches.

Here in the Borders, the long-time records from Lochton, near Coldstream, produced 114.3mm in December alone to give a total for the year of 685.9mm, or 26.95 inches, which nearly equates to Jim Brown’s record driest year.

We, in the eastern Borders, reckon farmers measure rain in the West in feet rather than inches and that is why they have more dairy farms over there and lots of grass as it is too wet to grow arable crops.

Moving forward to the rest of 2021, the AHDB released its latest 'Early Bird' survey which indicated an increase in winter cropping (as expected) given the much better autumn to carry out winter sowing than in the previous year. Winter barley is forecast up by 24% and winter wheat is up by 28% to 1,776,000 ha.

Oilseed rape is estimated down by 18% to 312,000 ha and this has seen an increase in alternative cropping such as oats and pulses. This will be the smallest OSR planted area since 1986 and only 42% of the total area sown as recently as 2012 and will see a change from the UK being an exporter to an importer to satisfy the crushing market.

This is due to the ongoing problem with cabbage stem flea beetles causing significant damage to the crop.

The total oat area is forecast to increase by 2.1% year-on-year to 214,000 ha – well ahead of the five-year average of 173,000 ha and if the spring planting of oats go as intended, the UK will be looking at its third successive 1m-tonne oat crop.

Spring barley is expected to decrease by 30% to 756,000 ha, but with winter barley planted the total area of barley will be around 1.1m ha again.

As we reflect on the start of a new year and how Covid-19 has affected the way we live and work (as I wrote this we are being told to take even more stringent care with further lockdown measures) we can only hope that the vaccines are rolled out as soon as possible.

With Brexit being the other current piece of interest at this time, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the past and look to the future.

The EU has been the UK’s major trading partner for nearly 50 years and some 60% of our food, feed and drink exports in 2019 went to the EU and 70% of our imports came from there. Now that a deal has been done, all the frightening tariffs that were being bandied about have now largely gone away but there will still be extra paperwork and other costs to swallow.

The AHDB analysis estimated these costs range from 5-8% for livestock products and 2-5% for crops and these will be reflected in farmgate prices, with farmers once again being forced to bear the brunt of these extra costs.

Primary producers will be concerned as to how changes will take place for future farm support, particularly as farming policy is a devolved issue and this will lead to uncertainty. We face the proposed gradual phasing out of direct payments and moving to being paid for environmental schemes payment will see a change in payment from the amount of land owned and farmed, to how farmers are paid to become more aware of the environment in future.

Moving on to the current farming and global issues – which carry on regardless of Covid-19 or Brexit – Russia has announced a €25 per tonne export tax on its exports from February 15 until the June 30 and this will be applied to its 17.5m tonnes of export quota wheat.

This will help support EU and world markets and prices have risen as a result. Unfortunately, due to the tight supply in the EU it is unlikely that EU countries will be able to take advantage of this to gain more export business.

Australia has had a large wheat harvest and along with Argentina, will take advantage of the reduced supplies available from Russia to win incoming tenders for wheat.

It is interesting to note that there are increased forecasts for soft wheat exports from UK and the EU now up to to 24.7m tonnes for this season and this is mainly due to large French wheat sales to China.

In the same period last year, the EU exported more than 20m tonnes without any Russian export restrictions in place.

Also, Russia is currently suffering from its worst winter wheat cropping conditions in a decade and it is estimated that up to 3.2m ha could prove to be a total loss. This due to the crop being sown into very dry soils and recently temperatures have fallen to as low as -20°C, plus estimates reckon that 13% of plants have failed to emerge.

Partly as a result of the Russian export quota and dire wheat growing issues, along with tight supplies back in the UK, this has supported wheat futures. For January, 2021, these stand at £198.50, for May, 2021, they are up £2 since December 23 to £201 and for November, 2021, are up £4.35 to 163.50. per tonne.

The UK barley markets have been quiet and as long as Covid-19 is present this continues to affect the malting barley industry with restaurants and pubs not able to make sales so there is no demand for any barley for malting, distilling or brewing.

The oilseed rape market has seen prices for crop delivered Erith up £2 recently to around £380 per tonne as the UK oilseed rape crop this year was less than half that of a few years ago.

Rapeseed prices, though, have largely been dictated by soyabeans and due to dry conditions in Argentina, this is likely to continue for some months. Global demand is supporting prices and dry conditions are slowing down soya planting which is now 67.8% complete, or 2.5% behind last year.

We wait in anticipation over the next few weeks to see how both Covid-19 and Brexit information develops and we can only hope for the best outcome as we move forward in anticipation for a better new year.