Once again this month it is weather, not climate, that is to the fore in all farming minds, with the coldest April for many decades logged across most European nations.

As we enter May, the cold conditions in Scotland continued, with significant snow as I write on the Borders and Highland hills and savage hail last night. The start of May was the coldest since records began in 1659 and a full 1.8°C below the previous record low in 1698!

In Poland, our crops emerged from the snow looking green and well, but April was very cold, the coldest since the last solar minimum cycle in 1997. In France, the effect of late frosts has been declared an official 'agricultural disaster' by government, decimating wine growing areas.

But, as usual Mother Nature, catches up and temperatures at the start of the second week in May have now risen and crops will now have a rapid burst through the growth stages if this continues, creating timing problems. In Ukraine and Poland, temperatures are now in the low-20s.

In the UK, it was the coldest April since 1922, with levels of air frost the highest for 60 years. To put it another way, it was just as cold 60 years ago.

Soil temperature is critical after a hard winter to get crops going

Soil temperature is critical after a hard winter to get crops going

This should be borne in mind whenever the alarmist media report weather, whether it is the hottest or coldest for 50 years. It means it was just the same temperature 50 years ago, so within the normal temperature bounds of one lifetime!

Whilst the drops from long term averages are around 2°C, it should be borne in mind that average global temperatures during the last Ice Age were only 8°C below the current levels, so it is significant.

The latest satellite data also shows that our global average temperature currently continues to drop even further below the 30-year average baseline. This welcome news on warming does not fit the alarmist media narrative of a climate catastrophe, so goes unreported of course.

It is important to note that climate is real weather averages over a 30-year period, not that predicted by models nor experienced seasonally from time to time.

Lower troposphere satellite data shows it was warmer in 1980 than now. Cooler weather may be likely to continue this year for a period, due to low solar activity and the effect of La Nina conditions.

New evidence has shown correlation between solar cycles and the influential La Nina effect. NASA have correlated past solar shutdowns with prolonged periods of global cooling and the next Grand Minimumn Solar event will be around 2030.

The Medieval warming period and the subsequent Little Ice Age were also related to solar activity. The science is far from settled in this complex system.

Interesting to note that receding glaciers are exposing fossil and more recent tree remains, well above the current tree lines. Let us not forget also the much needed global record harvest of 2020, with the balance of supply and demand tight and global stocks diminishing.

We, of course, need to be increasingly energy efficient, reduce carbon footprints (where it is sensible) and most importantly reduce waste for other very sensible reasons. It is interesting to see how the highly worthwhile efforts to reduce plastic waste are now being conflated with climate change by many media narratives.

Another change in marketing approach similar to the change from global warming to climate change. Let us not forget that the advent of fossil fuels saved global whale populations, who were being hunted to extinction for their oil to provide us with light.

A depth of soil that many farmers in Scotland could only dream about

A depth of soil that many farmers in Scotland could only dream about

In the 1800s, human labour made up 94% of industrial work in the most developed economy in the world, the US. Today it makes up only 8%.

In terms of the energy we use in the richest nations, we now have access to the equivalent of 150 'servants' to meet our basic needs and our wants. Rich nations still derive more than 80% of their energy requirements from fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels and cheaper energy have dragged billions out of poverty. Increasing energy prices with carbon tariffs will reverse this process of poverty reduction.

Fuel and food poverty are a very real threat for billions on this planet. Reductions in poverty and educating and empowering women have been the most effective mechanisms for reducing birth rates and population growth in recent decades.

There is a lot of evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected both these mechanisms. Adding cost to fuel and food will add injury to injury. Wholesale electricity prices have doubled in the last 12 months to £70/mWh.

Whilst almost half the world's population now believe that climate change will lead to man’s extinction, the science and facts speak differently.

The UN predicted that by 2100 that the average global citizen will earn 450% of today's income. Climate change, without mitigation, will reduce that to 434%, a problem but not an existential threat.

To meet UN targets, we need to reduce emissions by 8% per annum, every year this decade at the cost in the UK alone of over a £1trillion per annum.

Meanwhile, the UN’s own climate models show that if the Paris Treaty targets are met, which they won’t be, the reduction in average global temperature achieved at huge cost will be less than 0.2°C. The same sum spent on poverty alleviation, energy research and mitigation would yield far greater benefits to global society.

Let us hope that a new SNP-led government coalition will not attempt the crazy civil service plan of cutting Scottish livestock numbers by 300,000. Far better to listen to industry led groups, such as the arable FLG, led by Alex Moir.

I read with interest the recent column by John Elliot extolling the virtues of the old Cockle Park mixtures. As an undergraduate, 40 years ago, I carried out my honours thesis on the long running Palace Leas grass experiment at Cockle Park, looking at soil structure and its effect on root function, structure and drought resistance.

I was deeply struck by the huge deep root mass on these productive long term grass leys – a massive carbon sink that we can utilise for this century’s challenges.

As a PhD student two years later, whilst carrying out pioneering research on grassland nitrous oxide emissions with the late great John Ryden, I was struck again by this fact. When soil sampling by hand to a depth of 1m with a sledgehammer and hardened steel soil corer on a tough clay, with flints soil in Berkshire, the mass of carbon tied up in the roots of short term leys was brought home to me forcibly.

I bring this up as a warning to those with a mind to vote against AHDB research levies. This year's 'esoteric' research is next decade's critical information.

A more recent example is work I carried out more than 20 years ago on a new mixer product for wheat called folpet over three seasons. We found reasonable activity in triazole mixtures but it was significantly poorer than chlorothalonil, so was rejected as a product by CSC.

I never thought these trials would point the way for a new anti-resistant strategy in a different century!

Far better than the product-selling frenzy around costly, high margin biostimulants. I am surprised at some of the people now extolling their supposed virtues on fairly flimsy evidence, compared to that required for crop protection products.

As noted previously with Rothamsted’s 150-year-old Broadbalk experiment yesterday’s science database can be interrogated for guidance and solutions to today’s challenges.

Building underway for the plant which will process potato starch into bio-degradable packaging

Building underway for the plant which will process potato starch into bio-degradable packaging

It is good news that gene editing is being looked upon more favourably by both EU and Westminster Governments. It is to be hoped that Holyrood's new parliament will embrace this innovative technology, which has incredible promise to speed up solutions to both health and food security threats. We have a world class institute in this arena in Scotland at the James Hutton.

In addition to the cold conditions limiting the growth of both grazed and conserved grasses, as well as the grasses we harvest for seed, such as barley, wheat, maize or rice, we have also had unseasonably dry spring conditions throughout Europe.

Again, this is a weather event not climate. Continuing dry weather in the Mato Grosso in Brazil continues and is hitting second-crop corn after soya, with the possibility of a 90 mt crop, compared to the USDA prediction of 109 mt crop only a month ago.

What a wonderful world it is when I can sit at my desk in Europe and monitor satellite data on vegetation indices of emerging Brazilian crops and the moisture stress they are experiencing almost daily. More cost effective and easier to use than drones.

This drought is fuelling grain price rises, with corn prices back to 2011 prices and soya continues to rise too. This is now fueling food inflation prices in turn.

Those with an eye to past trends will recall the Arab Spring was predicated on food price inflation back in 2011. This was due to the ban on Russian and Ukrainian grain exports by their governments, as a result of that year’s drought.

Commodity prices are rising, whether lumber, crude, or copper on demand shock. Dollar weakness later in the year will also affect food poverty.

Food inflation and fuel poverty hit the poorest the hardest, whilst the better off get hit by the cosily named 'shrinkflation', fewer fish fingers per pack, or smaller Snickers bars, but the same price! Meanwhile, the EU has this month approved sales of mealworm for human consumption as an efficient source of protein. I think I will stick to Angus steak myself.

At the same time, big grain buyers, such as Bunge are buying into non-GMO plant protein isolate processors who supply food and beverage manufacturers.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, our weather has been kinder with temperatures now above 20°C and recent rains delaying planting slightly, but recharging soil reserves for our crops.

Potato planting is going well in our Central Plains Group business, with more than 50% of our starch, seed and processing potatoes now in and all our table potatoes planted, along with our protein peas for plant protein processing in good conditions.

We have not yet started on corn or sunflower, unlike some who went a little early. These crops are better in the bag than cold soils.

Potato planting recently in the rich soils of the Ukraine being carried out by the Central Plains Group

Potato planting recently in the rich soils of the Ukraine being carried out by the Central Plains Group

As I’ve always said to generations of agronomists around the world 'the most important day in the life of a crop is the day it goes into the ground.' You get it wrong there, then there are no roads back to optimum yield and profit.

We have also laid the foundations of our new starch processing plant and our crowdfunding raise is going well beyond expectations. It appears we have grabbed the zeitgeist with CPG.

We have also started a new linked project further evaluating the opportunities for starch products and processing in conjunction with USAID (www.centralplains.co.uk).

Firm evidence of the 'Biden Bounce' for Ukraine, along with the supportive visit to Kiev of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, last week and Putin’s grandstanding sabre-rattling along the border is now abating.

More about political optics than conflict, like Johnsons 'enpoissonned' (sic) efforts in Jersey waters.

In other weather news, the 'Perfect Storm' of Covid-19, food and fuel prices, and Brexit continues to play out.

Interesting that Jo Johnson, the PM’s ex-minister brother, took a seat on the board of a Dyson company around the time of the much publicised ventilatortaxgate texts.

So, at least one family business is doing well, unlike many others who are suffering from the massive EU export business losses reported in the latest figures from the Food and Drink Federation.

Milk, fish, beef and dairy products all hit very hard to a market of £294bn on our doorstep. Milk and dairy sales to non-EU nations rose in the same period so it is not a Covid-19 effect like some short sighted people suggest. Brexit: The gift that keeps on taking.

It appears Project Fear is truly now Project Here for food exporters. A UK to India trade deal of £1bn is announced by Liz Truss, yet the EU already trade 80-times that value to India.

Taking a leaf out of the Putin playbook in a blatant election day distraction move, our own PM Johnson despatched two warships to Jersey. Not to protect the Jersey Royals, nor even seed potato exports perish the thought, but fishing rights.

Fishing rights that were neglected, in the small print of a hasty progress by Johnson, through Parliament of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement. The same haste that hit our Scottish seed potato exports and led to violence on the streets of Belfast.

There is a clear and present danger of loss of farm support, cheap agricultural imports and loss of EU exports catching Scottish growers in another perfect storm.

This, despite the welcome position of being able to sell every grain or tuber we can produce to a world that needs it all.

As has been noted in these pages there is also a danger in hamstringing our rural communities by ill-conceived zero carbon policies, particularly in the livestock sector.

One of the great strengths of Scottish agriculture is its interconnectivity and feed for our livestock sector is a major direct, or indirect output for Scottish arable growers. It is a great step forward that the NFUS are bringing the great work of the ScotGov Farmer-Led Groups together in an overarching policy document.

It is important that our new Scottish parliament recognises the importance of our industry in driving our economy forward and helping to meet our current and future challenges.

We are very much more a key part of the solution than a part of the problem. This requires an imagination and vision that may or may not be present moving forward at this critical time.

The industry needs and deserves a clear pathway and strategy upon which to base planning and investment. Without investment on farm and in research we cannot prosper and grow to meet society’s needs.

We have learnt this many times over in the last 25 years in Ukraine and Poland with our run of successful businesses. Time will tell whether vision and imagination resides in Holyrood.



The Industry Veterans Shaping the Future of Farming

In November, Glasgow will host COP26, the UN global climate conference – ‘the most important global meeting ever to take place on UK soil’ – which will shine a light on the most innovative and groundbreaking companies from across the world paving the way for a more sustainable, cleaner future.

One agribusiness determined to lead the way in the industry is Central Plains Group (CPG), a Scottish farming company founded by a team of veteran British farmers and technologists on a mission to establish a large-scale potato and plant protein farming and processing operation that exists as a completely zero-waste bio-economy.

The company’s founder and CEO, Mark Laird, has been an industry leader for more than 25 years having launched his first farming operation in Eastern Europe in the mid-1990s. Fast forward to 2018 and his team had built Europe's largest regenerative agriculture operation of 200,000 ha in Ukraine.

It achieved revenues of over $250m, an IPO listing and a trade sale to a consortium of Saudi Arabian investors, providing early investors with a 2000% premium on their initial investment.

CPG was founded in 2019 by the same team and has already reached profitability against revenues of more than £3m in just its first year of operations, underpinned by a long-term Pepsico contract to supply crisping potatoes grown at their site in Lviv, Western Ukraine.

However, the team’s new venture is about more than just profitability, it’s about demonstrating to the world what the future of farming should look like. Namely, a farming and vertically integrated processing operation that doesn’t just supply high quality potatoes and plant proteins to the world’s largest food companies, but that also acts as a completely zero-waste bio-economy.

That means that every single output in the entire process is either recycled back into the land, or used to produce low-carbon products supplying a number of global markets.

The intended low-carbon products in its case are potato starch feedstocks for biodegradable packaging and vegetable proteins, both of which are in growing demand, but whose current carbon impact credentials fall significantly short of buyers’ expectations.

So, having raised more than £6m to date for the business, Mr Laird and his team are now giving everyday investors the chance to join the company as shareholders with the launch of their crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube, the UK’s largest equity crowdfunding platform.

Co-founder and technical director, Dr Keith Dawson, commented: "The fundamental vision of the business is to harvest sunshine and capture carbon through crop and soil, in an efficient and profitable manner, with a high level of environmental and societal sustainability and stewardship.

"This is one of the very first major farming based UK crowdfunding campaigns in an era when sustainability and food security are top of the agenda."

Mr Laird added: "Awareness around sustainability has never been higher than it is today, but we believe that there is room for innovation to come from those already within the industry. That’s where we come in and that’s why we want to invite members of the public to become shareholders; to be part of the future of farming.”