It would be such a shame to put warnings on fine wine

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

The weather has certainly changed with a distinct autumnal feel to it since the remnants of hurricane Bertha swept through the country. Various amounts of rain fell and we have had well over two inches in the last ten days, transforming the prospect of grass growth as we head into autumn. For farmers in the middle of harvest however, this was not wanted and it is creating problems and holding the harvest up. Further north, rain has done a great deal of damage to crops, and we all hope that there is still some sunny warm weather to come for farmers and those of you on holiday.

The ground is now much softer and moving the electric fence daily for the various groups of heifers is far easier than it was a few days ago, and now there are mushrooms everywhere! This does happen of course following a long dry period and then some rain. We have vineyards both sides of us at Tillington and they look really well this year, a bright vivid green with very healthy looking leaves. I hope that this is going to be a good year for them.

Sussex is now making a real name for itself in the wine industry and as you read in this paper only last week, having dominated awards for white wine, reds are now being grown in the South, the warmer climate being really good news. It is hugely frustrating therefore to hear those who support the ‘nanny state’ in government, wanting to put labels on all alcoholic drinks to warn us of the danger.

There is particular concern about the ‘baby-boomers’ who are now retiring or retired consuming far too much alcohol, and of course the young people who look for the limit in most things they do for a while until they mature (hopefully) and get over it.

Wine bottles and their labels are an important part of this business and the reluctance to leave the traditional cork for far more effective screw-cap shows that presentation and occasion is everything. Many bottles of wine are bought due to pretty or exclusive looking labels, or the little story on the back of the bottle. It would be a shame to stamp a skull and cross-bones government warning across the label or a graphic picture of a diseased liver!

We do grow many other exotic crops in the UK as enterprising farmers and growers take advantage of warmer weather. Figs from Essex and Lincolnshire, olives now grown in Kent, apricots in Kent, sunflowers in Lincolnshire and in the South of course, melons again in Lincolnshire and Kent, chillies in Devon, and the wine industry has now arrived in Scotland; in the Firth of Forth. We have the potential to rival France in apricots according to supermarket buyers and the olive groves of Kent are working on their first consignment of ‘extra virgin olive oil’ in addition to supplying restaurants with very fine olives for the table.

I spent the whole of last week renewing my heavy goods ADR (dangerous goods) driving licence, which has to be done every five years. This involves 35 hours of classroom lectures and exams, culminating hopefully in a pass. I don’t do much lorry driving but having obtained my HGV many years ago I am keen to hang on to it as I help people out when they need a driver. There is a real shortage of HGV drivers in this country, whereas most people think that all these Eastern European drivers are pinching British jobs, the reverse is true. Despite so many European drivers on the roads, we are still very short of truck drivers.

Interestingly, a change in the law next year will allow lorries to travel at up to 50mph (rather than 40mph) on single carriageway roads and there is a chance that the speed limit on dual-carriageways for lorries will also be raised from 50mph to 60mph. This makes eminent sense and government knows that few people will notice the former as they state that three quarters of all lorries on the roads travel at 50mph already on single carriageway where there are no other constraints such as other limits, roadwork’s or traffic.

The main reason is one of safety. Government has noticed that the other quarter of law abiding lorry drivers cause ‘bunching’ of slow traffic, with frustration all round causing some car drivers to overtake in dangerous places leading to accidents.

This is the same government that decided against lifting the 70mph limit on motorways to 80mph recently on environmental grounds, which is quite ridiculous and is ignored by almost all drivers the majority of whom travel at 80mph most of the time (unless you are in Wales where police hatred of the motorist is absolute).

New Zealand’s Federated Farmers are telling us all not to panic over the sharp decline in global dairy prices. Vice Chairman Andrew Hoggart has said that the price drop is tracking the forecast made by Rabobank and is on the expected trend, and there is no disaster here. We must realise that last season has been a perfect one in pretty much every country on earth which produces milk he said, but there are no milk lakes or butter mountains anywhere, and things will change. What will be critical is the expected recovery in the New Year, which will put everything on an even keel again.

It is quite remarkable how prices in almost every sector of farming have dropped sharply of late. It was only last year when farmers who were supplying meat were getting good prices on the back of promises and big statements made in support for British agriculture by retailers who had been stunned by the horse meat scandal.

No doubt they were sincere at the time as things were looking very bad and they were under serious pressure following the dire result of sourcing the cheapest possible processed meat from anywhere in Europe and beyond. Their brand was at stake and although I can be as sceptical as anyone, I believe they were making promises which were genuine at the time.

Supermarkets have now returned to how they always operate, driving down prices and squeezing suppliers. As Lidl and Aldi’s growth in market share continue and consumers have forgotten about the worries of food safety and provenance, margins and loss of market share dominated the boardrooms of other retailers. I mention consumers as supermarkets can, and do change very quickly if consumers panic and start to worry about provenance and food safety, but will revert to type overnight if consumers then go back to looking for the best deal.

Waitrose has a niche which protects those who choose and can afford to worry about their food, and if you look at who buys and stocks mostly British produce on the shelves, it is (as you would expect) Waitrose and then the discounters (Lidl and Aldi). So the losers you would think are barking up the wrong tree when they pack their shelves with Southern Hemisphere lamb during the height of the British season. The truth is of course that consumers’ short memories and behaviour tell them that price is once again the only real driver of consumer choice, and by stocking from all over the world they can cut prices and keep margins which are far bigger than the discounters. I fear that suppliers and farmers are in for another rough ride.