Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Down on the farm

This page has been out and about in the past week visiting farmers and growers in various parts of the country. It's always good to touch base with what is happening in the real world of agriculture and to hear of the ingenuity and initiative which is being used to respond to some of the challenges the industry is facing. A few reflections ....

Technology

Advances in farm technology continue. At one location that was visited tractors are driven entirely by global positioning systems to produce more accurate rows, human intervention only occurring at the end of a row. I saw solar driven moisture probes which are then read automatically to produced detailed graphs of moisture levels in the soil to help plan irrigation. And I visited a vast glasshouse producing herbs in which most processes were automated and labour was most evident in the packing section.

Management

Bringing all these complex processes together under considerable cost pressures and a need to pay greater attention to environmental considerations requires highly sophisticated management. Good technical managers are increasingly hard to find. And the weather can still spring nasty surprises. At one farm visited a salad crop had been devastated by a hailstorm.

Labour

Many planting and harvesting operations still require substantial amounts of labour and one important source for many growers is the Concordia scheme which bring in students from Eastern European universities. This scheme, I was told, is to be extended to China. Employers are very pleased with the quality and effort of the labour force and estimate they would require substantially more British employees to achieve the same level of output.

Retail pressure

This is increasing rather than diminishing. One enterprise had received visits from three different customers during one day that week. I saw lettuce in different shades of red being grown in adjacent plots to meet the specifications of different supermarkets. We also heard many stories of prices being forced down with the difficulties of some supermarkets make them even more price sensitive while requiring high quality standards.

Behind the supermarket is the ultimate customer who requires plentiful supplies of cheap food, good flavour, uniform appearance and grown with as few pesticides as possible. Not easy to achieve.

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