Illustration by Adam Q

Farming Life: Infertile Ground

Escalating fertiliser and grain costs have left many farmers in crisis. So why isn't the government doing more to help?
May 12, 2022

What crazy times we live in. The news cycle lurches from economic shock to natural disaster to political upheaval, and now to war. The conflict in Ukraine has awoken a striking fraternity between the Brits and the Ukrainians; we are horrified by what we see on our television screens and want to help in any way.

Unfortunately, the war has destabilised our food supply chains, placing some farmers into serious hardship. Famers have experienced shocks before and weathered them with typical resolve: we feel no other option than to count the cost, learn the lessons, and plant again. But the current situation is without precedent.

First of all, there is a crisis in fertiliser supply—the price has more than quadrupled, approaching £1,000 per tonne within a year. This recent surge is due to the escalating cost of natural gas, of which Russia is the world’s largest exporter. Huge amounts are typically required to produce artificial nitrogen fertiliser. This has wrecked the supply of dozens of other inputs affecting farmers, which then ultimately impacts the food on our shelves.

Around 30 per cent of the world’s wheat also comes from Ukraine and Russia and, at the same time, the cost of grain has risen by nearly £100 per tonne—which is small compensation for arable farmers like me, but a massive blow to poultry farmers, for whom grain is a significant component of feed costs.As production expenses skyrocket for farms, it won’t be long before consumer food prices have to increase to uncomfortable levels.

Comments from the secretary of state for agriculture, George Eustice, at the National Farmers’ Union conference seemed to imply that the million tonnes of artificial fertiliser used in the UK each year could be replaced, at least in part, by organic manures. According to the NFU this would require 33m tonnes of organic manures, such as farmyard manure or sewage sludge from human waste. Put simply however, we don’t have any of this to spare; any manure produced at present is already put to good use with little or no surplus.

As a farmer, I’m left scratching my head about the government’s response. Is this perhaps well co-ordinated spin, giving the impression that everything is fine to avoid handing political advantages to Putin? Do our decision-makers really think that the market—and our supermarkets in particular—will resolve this issue, with the fallback of relying on imports should all else fail?

As I have argued in previous columns, importing is not a solution—if we import more food, we export our carbon footprint, and with it any control we have over conditions of stewardship and welfare in food production.

So is there any hope? On our farm, we grow clover, which replaces some of our need for artificial fertiliser by fixing the nitrogen that makes up 78 per cent of the air around us. When I rang our clover seed supplier recently, I expected him to tell me that he had sold out, as other farmers sought to try the same tactic. I was surprised to be told that sales hadn’t increased—in fact they had decreased. Farmers who are faced with output prices increasing, but input costs doubling, tripling or fluctuating wildly are struggling to budget or plan.

The multi-annual cycle of farming has been crippled by market chaos; instinct counts for very little, and farmers like me are in shock. The wolf isn’t at the door, he’s running riot in our food supply chain. Sometimes I wonder if he’s in government.