Good barley, bad supermarkets and a very bad £100,000 tractor bill

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Dorset NFU county chairman George Hosford gives show visitors an insight to the life of a modern farmer with his July farm diary

Harvest time near Blandford All images: George Hosford

Our winter barley harvest started a little earlier than usual, though only one day earlier than in 2018 (another heatwave year). All 113 hectares was Maris Otter, and the yield was our best ever. Big heap feed barley growers might scoff, but Otter (bred in 1966) is a consistent performer for us. We enjoy growing it and we particularly enjoy testing the results once the skilled brewers at places like St Austell, Flack Manor, Butcombe and Dorset’s Sixpenny brewery have done their best with it!
The oilseed rape was ready on 14th July, very similar to 2018 but a good deal earlier than most years. It did not need spraying with glyphosate. It had ripened evenly and in good time. The yields were good where allowed to grow undamaged by animals, but terrible where the farmer (erm, isn’t that you? – Ed) had insisted on grazing sheep (admittedly for all sorts of sound reasons like weed, insect and disease-avoidance).
After three years of this experiment, initiated with Innovative Farmers as part of the search for survival techniques in face of the flea beetle onslaught following the ban on neonics, we have got the message. The sheep have been sold, so it won’t be happening again.

A pretty field margain near Dorschester

Wildflower verges
Driving back from a bad news session at our local tractor dealer last Saturday, my eye was caught by a very pretty field margin near Dorchester. Closer examination revealed cornflowers, corn marigolds, ox-eye daisies, poppies and others – mostly annuals. The richness of colour and the buzz of the bees helped to sweep away the blues induced by being told that one of our tractors has a near-terminal condition – terminal either for the tractor or the bank account, we just have to decide which. How can a ten-year-old tractor with just 6,000 hours on the clock be rendered almost worthless by a breakdown due to poor manufacturing? Why do we have no comeback on the manufacturer who happily took £100,000 off us in 2012, and walked away after the original warranty expired?
Anyway, back to the flowers. I admired their beauty, while wondering which is better; a perennial mix, which only needs to be established once, and can be good for ten to 15 years of pollen and nectar provision (but doesn’t look remotely as colourful as this one). Or are annuals better for attracting insects and providing nectar, with the drawback of needing to re-sow every year? Without doubt the annuals are good for impressing people; planted alongside public paths and roads they are sure to attract the right kind of attention. But for busy farmers who are always time-poor, doing it just once is usually going to be preferable. It’s not so good for the soil to have to re-sow every year, either.

Guatamalan carrots in the local supermaket

Guatamalan carrots
I am definitely not the best person to send out for the weekly shop. I always take far too long. Starting at the newspaper rack just inside the door of our local supermarket, just seeing the daily paper headlines makes my blood pressure rise. Stupid puns abound for starters, but what really gets me is the tribalism and narrow mindedness shown. I can’t understand why people buy any of them at all.
Moving on to the fruit and veg aisle, things don’t improve when I reach the apples, carrots, tomatoes and mushrooms.
All of these grow very well indeed in the UK. The modern technology for fresh produce storage is amazing – you can still buy English apples in July that taste nearly as fresh as the day they were picked. And in less than a month the new crop will be available.
Why then are we shipping in apples from South Africa and calling them seasonal or the appalling French Granny Smiths or – worst of all – Gala apples from Argentina and calling them organic. English carrots are available for a great deal of the year; stored in the ground for months, they are dug as required to suit the market. Presumably they can also be kept in cold storage. Why then do we need to import ‘Tendersweet’ carrots from Guatemala in July?

Combining at Traveller’s Rest Farm near Blandford

Mushrooms, as far as I can tell, are like many people – kept in the dark and fed on bullsh**t. This can be done anywhere. There used to be a large mushroom farm near Sturminster Newton, but they gave up the unequal fight with their supermarket customer a few years ago. They also used to provide a useful source of compost for neighbouring farmers to purchase. Why are we importing mushrooms from Poland and selling them in identical packaging to the English ones produced in Cambridgeshire?
And lastly tomatoes – if our greenhouse is anything to go by, July is peak tomato season in the UK. Modern techniques and innovative heat sources have extended the tomato season hugely over the last ten years – for example using waste heat from anaerobic digester plants or from sugarbeet factories. However, the tomato shelf in our supermarket is dominated by Moroccan, Polish and Spanish tomatoes, even in July. The only UK ones are the premium range, with a limited number of sizes.
And yes, I’m aware I should shop more widely and only spend where I will give the right signal to the market with my purchasing. But sadly, convenience has a value too, and there is not much choice in Blandford. It also gives me something to rant write about.
So much for taking back control, for levelling up and for ensuring fairness in the marketplace. Our mendacious government has squirmed out of allowing parliament the chance to debate the Australian trade deal before the summer recess, and the Tory majority will nod it through. They seem to be happy to see our own food industry slowly strangled to death.
And I haven’t even reached the meat and dairy aisles yet…

George farms near Blandford, and writes a regular monthly farm diary on his blog
View From The Hill

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