Well, it’s been a close run thing recently as to whether the weather or the grain market has been the most difficult to predict.

For a while, it looked like there was going to be no let up to the record amount of heat which they had both been generating. Needless to say, though, the inevitable change came to pass on both the market and weather fronts.

These unpredictable systems have shown that it is a mistake to rely on any degree of constancy – or even gradual change – with the increased levels of volatility on both the meteorological and financial fronts highlighting the fact that the industry has to carry one heck of a burden of risk.

I suspect that if last week’s machinations in Ukraine had been a plot in a James Bond film, you’d probably have found it a bit difficult to swallow – but the 'sign a treaty then send in the missiles' approach of Russia’s president Putin saw Black Sea supply concerns send further shockwaves through the global grain markets.

The deal to allow ships free passage to export Ukrainian grain from its ports to destinations around the world, which had been hailed as a 'beacon of hope', was the first major agreement struck between the two sides during the five-month conflict.

The blockade of the ports, such as Odessa, had seen grain exports – which account for the country’s main economic lifeline – grind to a halt, leaving an estimated 22m tonnes of wheat, corn and other grains stranded in silos, with knock on consequences on the international grain markets – and world food supplies.

The signing of the treaty might have triggered a further tumble in wheat prices, which had already been slipping since the bull run in the market peaked in mid-May – but the effects of Russia’s apparent betrayal of the terms of the agreement drove nervousness back deep into the grain market.

However, although prices were seeing a rally because of this at the beginning of the week, whether it’s likely to be a lasting effect remains a moot point.

Because it is possible that it might be simply have been an example of what those who trade the markets call a ‘dead cat bounce’ (a term which is based on the somewhat unsavoury premise that if you drop a dead cat from high enough it’s bound to bounce at least a little bit).

So, with a volatile grain market balanced on a knife edge, it doesn’t look like the weather is going to be the only great unknown as we approach harvest.

Sadly, there doesn’t look to be much in the way of respite from market pressures even if we lift our eyes from this year’s crop and look to the economics and practicalities of growing next years – for there’s going to be just as much uncertainty over future supplies and availability of fertilisers

These fears over prices and supplies certainly weren’t allayed a week or two back by reports of the collapse of a bid from an industry-wide consortium to purchase the major manufacturing plant at Ince, in Cheshire – which owners, CF Fertilisers, are intent on closing as part of a calculated move to consolidate their production at the single site at Billingham.

In recent years, the majority of the UK’s domestic ammonium fertiliser has been produced by US-based company which closed down production at the UK’s two major production plants last year due to the high costs of the natural gas which used to fuel the energy-hungry process.

The closure gathered considerable media attention back then as it also affected supplies of carbon dioxide – a by-product of ammonium fertiliser manufacture – with far-reaching consequences for several other sectors.

Following Government intervention – most likely in the form of a considerable financial incentive – the CF plant, at Billingham, in the North of England, restarted production of both fertiliser and CO2 later in the year. However, a month or so ago the company revealed that it was set to permanently close its other plant at Ince and focus production solely at Billingham.

This had obvious implications for the supply side of the equation because as well as producing over 1m tonnes of fertiliser a year, it was also the country’s single largest producer of true granular compound NPK fertilisers.

Speaking when the move was announced Brett Nightingale, managing director, CF Fertilisers UK, said the company saw considerable challenges to long-term sustainability of the two-site approach: “Following a strategic review of our business, we believe that the best way to continue our legacy of serving customers in the UK is to operate only the Billingham manufacturing facility moving forward while addressing cost pressures throughout our business.”

The Ince plant is also the country’s largest producer of true granular compound fertilisers, which sees ammonium nitrate blended with phosphate, potassium and sulphur – but the firm indicated that such operations were currently economically unviable.

However, the news of the plant closure prompted the formation of UK Nitrogen, a consortium of investors with a mixture of agricultural interests – and led by the former head of the Army, Lord Dannatt – to work on a bid for the Ince plant with the intention of keeping it running as a going concern.

It is believed that the consortium sought a £10m loan from the UK Government to help purchase the plant, on the understanding that the loan would be repaid in full. However, reports indicated that while the bid met with some sympathy from Defra, the Treasury was unwilling to fund the initiative, with Government eventually indicating it was a 'matter for the market to decide'.

While alternative funding was believed to have been secured, the consortium’s efforts to buy the plant were reported to have collapsed. CF conceded that it had spoken with several parties, but it only went as far as stating that so far none of the offers appeared likely to secure the long-term future of the Ince manufacturing facility and its employees.

Now it wouldn’t be beyond the bounds of reasonable speculation to wonder if CF’s lack of desire to sell the plant at Ince to someone who wanted to shore it up as a going concern was driven by a desire to ensure that there was no real internal competition operating in the UK market.

The English NFU expressed fears that the plant’s closure could impact on the availability of key crop nutrients – not just nitrogen – to UK farmers.

“The Government must undertake an impact assessment from a loss of supply and replacement perspective, so that growers can start to make informed decisions when purchasing new season supplies,” said the chair of the English NFU combinable crops board, Matt Culley – who also questioned how much, if any, of the lost Ince production can be switched to CF’s other site at Billingham.

Of course, imported fertilisers have always played an important part in the equation as well – and while the deal to let Ukraine export its wheat also apparently included an agreement to let Russia re-start exports of fertiliser, it’s not known how much of that would ever be bound for the UK – or how many people would be willing to buy it under the current circumstances.

But the news that the EU is set to temporarily drop its long-standing import tariffs on the base materials used for fertiliser production, with the exclusion of that from Russia and Belarus, will also impact on the market.

Now, as European farming organisations swiftly pointed out, the tariff suspension isn’t actually on products which a farmer would buy to spread on his fields, rather it is only on the materials which manufacturers use to produce their fertilisers.

Needless to say, European farmers immediately questioned just how much of any savings generated were likely to work its way down to them. I guess it would be fair to say there would be even more doubt about it working its way down to farmers in the UK …