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'Our year in farming' - 2014 through the eyes of East Anglian farmers

A rainbow colours the sky over a farmer as he ploughs a field near North Walsham.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

A rainbow colours the sky over a farmer as he ploughs a field near North Walsham. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

2014 was a turbulent year for agriculture - dominated by market volatility, complicated by the surplus from a spectacular cereals harvest and a Russian import ban in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Farmers also dealt with collapsing meat and milk prices and continued uncertainty over EU subsidy reforms. As we begin a new year, we asked a cross-section of farmers to give us their perspective on the last 12 months.

A pig farm at Mileham. Picture: Ian BurtA pig farm at Mileham. Picture: Ian Burt

Tony Bambridge: Managing director at B&C Farming, a contract arable operation based at Marsham, near Aylsham, which also produces seed potatoes.

“2014 has been a very good year for farming but probably a poor year for farmers.

“As farmers we can reflect on a job well done with some record yields and bulging barns of good quality produce. However, as businesses competing in a global marketplace, the bottom has fallen out of our world, as farmers across the globe appear to have had equally good fortune with the weather and also have bumper crops. Supply has outstripped demand with the resulting crash in values. Only the cornerstone crop of Norfolk, sugar beet, remains at good values, but only for this year.

“As the days now start to lengthen again we now look forward to another cycle of planting, growing and harvest, perhaps a little less sure of the future but still with optimism.

Wheat harvest on Halvergate.  Picture: James BassWheat harvest on Halvergate. Picture: James Bass

“The potato industry is still a little bit puzzled about the change in the consumers’ habits. 15pc (or thereabouts) fewer fresh potatoes are being sold than over a year ago, yet analysts tell us that potatoes are eaten at almost as many meal occasions as previously. Is it that less are wasted in the home? Purchasers seem to favour the smaller bags and purchase more frequently and from multiple outlets. Also we have seen a slight rise in the use of frozen potatoes and chilled prepared potatoes, to the extent that now 57pc of potato consumption is from these sources.

“These changing dynamics, along with the retailers vying and competing for market share as the discounters battle for a greater slice of the market, and the loss of potato processing capacity in the country, seen in the closure of the Heinz factory at Westwick later in 2014 which produced Aunt Bessie products, leaves the county’s potato growers in an uncertain time.”

Ken Proctor: Shipdham dairy farmer and chairman of Norfolk NFU

“What an up-and-down year for the dairy industry. At the start of the year milk was at an all time high – 34p per litre was common, milk was needed, exiting new export markets were developing and the imminent abolition of quotas all seemed put the industry into a ‘full steam ahead’ situation. We also had a £1.7bn deficit in milk products in this country, so various strategies and initiatives were developed to increase production. Don’t forget, this is an industry that has suffered severe starvation in investment over the last 20 years.

The maize harvest at Grange Farm near Shipdham. Picture: Matthew Usher.The maize harvest at Grange Farm near Shipdham. Picture: Matthew Usher.

“But I am afraid it was a false dawn. So good were farmers at increasing production, that soon a shortage turned into over-production. Several factors caused this, but the result has been a steady decrease in wholesale prices over the year by 10p, bringing the farmgate price to 24p. At this price, milk is well under the cost of production and no longer sustainable.

“The factors in the main were ideal weather for production worldwide in 2014.

“The 5pc shortage turned into an 8pc over-production. Also, many of our export markets disappeared. China went out of the market, and the Russian import ban impacted – but just imagine if we had an 8pc shortfall in two to three years and we have lost our industry. That could easily happen, as it did in the pig and poultry industry. Some form of stability must come into the industry for the good of all.

“As I write this, the news has just broken there are now under 10,000 dairy farmers in the UK, compared with 48,000 in 1980. Quite a sobering thought. Let’s hope 2015 finds new markets for milk and milk products, our farmers keep in business and the true importance of a key industry is realised.”

Dairy cattle. Picture: Matthew Usher.Dairy cattle. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Roger Long: Livestock farmer at Scarning, near Dereham, and Norfolk delegate on the NFU regional livestock board

“On the beef front, it was a good start to 2014 – then beef prices went into free fall. Prices gradually crept back to an acceptable level, especially bearing in mind the feed prices were considerably back.

“Not only had the corn come back but there seemed to be a large amount of stock feed available at very reasonable money. Even the grass lasted longer and was better last autumn – although some cattle were left out too long without any supporting feed.

“With the milk situation being poor, to say the least, I can see more herds going and people leaving the industry. The other problem that brings is with less cows come less calves, which in the long term will affect the number of cattle coming through.

“Once again TB (bovine tuberculosis) has created the biggest problem for our industry and the greatest cost. It is hard to see how 2015 can be much better on that front while the government continues to have two testing regimes, TB4 and TB1.”

Mark Fletcher: Farms on the Walsingham Estate within a family partnership, growing cereals and oilseed rape alongside a specialist sugar beet contracting enterprise

“Looking back over the last year, I think it is the first time in my farming career that I could not find too much wrong with the weather – so much so, even my family noticed my distinct lack of complaint. This however has been offset by the fall in commodity prices which has affected all farms to a greater or lesser extent, based on forward-selling of crops. Sugar beet on a lot of farms will be the backbone to profits this year, due to high prices and record yields on many farms reported.

“The current cropping year has started well, with the majority of crops getting away to a good start. Early problems with flea beetles in oilseed rape have now been overcome with the mild weather, but this is not likely every year without adequate seed treatments available. My hope this year is to have crops meet their early potential, especially as the commodity markets remain as volatile as ever.”

Simon Watchorn: The 2014 Pig farmer of the Year, who runs a commercial farm near Bungay

“2014 started well, with reasonable prices and the industry making some much-needed money to be able to re-invest back in the infrastructure of each pig business. Early in January the Russians put an import ban on EU pork and pork products. The EU supply the Russians with 85,000 tonnes of pork annually, so this has had serious repercussions on the EU and UK pig market.

“This problem has led to a drop in the base price in the UK of 15pc and a much bigger drop in mainland Europe. The addition in the summer of 2014 EU and US sanctions against Russia made the matter much worse. Despite the fall in pig food prices, the industry has slipped back towards break-even returns again.

“The industry as a whole has performed exceptionally well on the production front and for the third year in succession will produce more than 10 million finished pigs. The last time the industry achieved this was in 2003 and that was with 20pc more breeding sows.

“In 2015 I hope that there will be a resolution of the issue with Russia and we can all return to trading normally. A black cloud on the horizon is the confirmation of a case of the highly virulent strain of PEDv (porcine epidemic diarrhea virus) in the Ukraine – the first time this has been found in Europe. This would have very serious consequences for the UK pig industry if it arrived here, so let us all hope that careful and proper biosecurity will keep it out.”

Mark Gorton: Co-founder of Traditional Norfolk Poultry at Shropham

“All I hear at the moment is: ‘You must be doing well with the feed price where it is!’ Well, the truth is, most people would have had feed already bought and so didn’t really benefit from the rock-bottom prices which wheat hit over the summer. With the threat of unrest in Ukraine in the spring and wheat sitting at around the £150 mark I think we all thought it was a good time to buy – who could have predicted sub-£100 feed wheat when it wasn’t that long ago that it was at £240? Having said that, things are certainly better than they were and we have been able to invest in upgrading and increasing our bespoke mobile chicken houses over the summer months.

“The launch of our Norfolk Black Chicken in the autumn was very successful and, having had a successful Christmas turkey campaign, we are well positioned to go into 2015 and press on with our expansion plans which will provide more opportunities for farmers to grow poultry for us to supply our customer base.”

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