27 Feb 2014

Last week I went to the Defra offices in London for a meeting. Whilst walking to Cambridge railway station I was reminded of the changes that have occurred on that route over the past thirty years.

Halfway to the station I passed the former site of a large and extensive Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) office. Like many MAFF offices it was previously a hospital for those wounded in World War II. The buildings were thrown up and made desperately poor offices. I was working there when the then Minister of Agriculture, John Selwyn Gummer visited and apologised for the working conditions. The site is now a very modern housing development.

Things have changed at the railway station as well. In 1984 it had two ticket windows and now it has six plus self-service machines, although these are still not enough to cope with peak demand. Close to the station was a RHM mill that in its latter years milled Soissons wheat for baguette flour; the smell was glorious. That site is also now a very modern housing development.

There have been big changes in the places in London where I’ve attended meetings. In the 1980s, MAFF occupied three substantial buildings in London and the Department of the Environment occupied three tower blocks. As the joint department (Defra) they are now squeezed into one of the former MAFF buildings. Few have their own offices and most work in rooms resembling call centres.

Changes have been as significant or even more significant in arable agriculture over the last thirty years. 1984 was the year of the great breakthrough in wheat yields and over the following twenty years many farmers strove but failed to match that yield. In fact, the overall approach to wheat growing has changed little over the last thirty years. The big changes have been in the size of arable enterprises and the labour and machinery costs.

I was recently in one of the university libraries (this particular one has not physically changed at all over the last thirty years!) and read the annual Farming in the Eastern Counties reports based on the farm business surveys carried out by the University. Starting with the 1984 report, I worked forward to 2004. There was a national re-organisation of surveys in 2005 and the type and format of data in the reports were changed. However, the trends in labour and machinery costs between 1984 and 2004 were intriguing.

Labour and machinery costs remained remarkably stable over that period despite the Consumer Price Index increasing by 85% over the same period. On mainly cereal farms in the eastern counties, the labour cost per hectare was £102 in 1984 and it was £102 in 2004. Machinery costs were £199/ha in 1984 and £165/ha in 2004. The cost of the two together rose from £301/ha in 1984 to £345/ha in 1997 but with the subsequent bad years fell to £266 in 2004. This is not far from the target of £250/ha set by farm business and machinery advisers at the end of the last millennium.

As far as I can ascertain from the more recent data, the costs have increased a little over the last few years as farmers have re-equipped. However, they still do not appear to exceed the joint total of 1984.    

These cost trends reflect an enormous increase in efficiency based on the benefits of scale and access to good and reliable crop protection. The latter has enabled a labour and machinery efficient approach to the management of broad-acre crops, including non-plough tillage and the adoption of block cropping, without having to jeopardise unnecessarily the standard of or the cost of crop protection.

As I mentioned in a blog a few weeks back, this KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) approach to broad-acre crop management is under threat from pesticide resistance, pesticide product withdrawals (due to higher registration requirements) and perhaps extreme weather patterns. In addition, the ‘three crop rule’ may well reduce the efficiency of labour and machinery use on some blocks of land, particularly those under short term tenancy and contract farming agreements.

So as in all parts of our lives things are not what they used to be. Change and adaptation will always be required.