Monday, October 28, 2013

The promise of precision farming

It has been estimated that the use of precision agriculture technology could increase yield on any given farm by about 10 per cent, compared with average global annual crop yield increases of about one per cent. Tractors that map fields, drive themselves and precisely calibrate their movements to within inches to minimise wasted fuel, fertiliser or seed are increasingly becoming a standard piece of kit.

Auto steer has been around for about 15 years, but the focus is increasingly on remote sensing and data collection on the dozens of variables, from soil moisture to nutrient levels, that influence success in modern farming. Agricultural companies are trying to make better use of the vast caches of data that farmers generate in areas such as yield and soil mapping, although some farmers have privacy concerns and want to limit the amount they share with big companies.

Monsanto recently spent nearly $1bn acquiring data science company Climate Corporation. Companies clearly see commercial opportunities in relation to climate change, but there is controversy about whether weather derivatives have the market smoothing effect that is claimed for them: Climate data

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The final shape of CAP reform

A rural surveyor takes a look at the final shape of CAP reform, noting that, as always, the devil is in the detail with many points of implementation still to be resolved: CAP reform

He also notes the different perceptions between the UK and other member states with the reform being seen as a missed opportunity here and a substantial achievement elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Subisdising oil seed rape

The threatened reduction of oil seed rape subsidies for biofuel from 10 per cent to 5 per cent is concerning some farmers who say that it will no longer make economic sense to grow the crop. Of course, one might ask whether such a market distorting subsidy was sensible in the first place which is why the UK and other member states such as the Netherlands would like to see it reduced.

However, for farmers on heavy land in particular oil seed rape has great advantages as a break crop. There aren't that many alternatives. Peas are very sensitive to weather conditions, particularly rain, and the returns on sugar beet are not that good.

Oil seed rape is also favoured by beekeepers as it flowers early in the season and produces plenty of pollen.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Why farmers have to hedge currency risk

One hundred years ago in 1913 the weather was also warm for the time of year with people claiming that it was too hot to play football. It all ended in a big thunderstorm here in the Midlands. According to a Farmers Weekly poll, the overwhelming majority of farmers still think they have been hit by the weather last winter and the wet and cold spring, the second in a row. I have been growing tomatoes in my greenhouse for over thirty years and this is the worst year I can remember (and, of course, I don't get a SFP!). In these circumstances subsidy payments become more important to farmers to maintain their cash flow.

Along with the uncertainties of the weather, farmers also have to face currency risk. Indeed, some of them follow the forex market as keenly as they keep an eye on the weather. The recent rally by sterling is not good news for farmers as September 30th is the day when their farm subsidies are translated from euros into pounds. (From next year it will be calculated as an average for the month). The pound has gone up by about two per cent since May when they submitted their claims.

A growing number of farmers are resorting to hedging their currency risk. According to Alick Jones, agriculture policy director at Lloyds TSB, about a third of their clients in receipt of the single farm payment hedge their currency risk. However, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which receives £1m in subsidies as a big landowner, doesn't follow this practice.

It was interesting to read in yesterday's Financial Times report on this topic that on one 450-acre livestock farm in Anglesey, the single farm payment of about £30,000 represents about 40 per cent of profits. In the long run, such a dependence on subsidies cannot be healthy, as many farmers themselves recognise, but for now they are an integral part of the business model.