Alex James: Modern farmers are really just playing the stock market

Rural Notebook: Hi-tech farming to match Formula One

Share
Related Topics

Harvest time in Norfolk: Wheat mainly, plus rapeseed and sugarbeet on 2,000 acres, about three square miles, enough land to justify owning the machinery that makes it all efficient and easy – a combine, big tractor, grain drier and storage sheds.

I realised after visiting this particular farm that actually growing stuff isn't the tricky bit. Machines and experts take care of all that for the farmer. Data from last year's harvest is fed into the crop-sprayer, telling it to squirt more juice on patches where the yield was low. A consultant agronomist regularly inspects the crops, suggesting ways to combat pests and wring the most out of the soil without wrecking it.

That's all straightforward. The really clever bit is deciding what to grow, when to harvest and when to sell. Modern farmers are playing the stock market, really – trading commodities and betting on futures. Behind every smart combine harvester, although not necessarily at the wheel, is a smart cookie. My host foresaw the rise of a middle class in China and surmised that grain prices would rise as a result. He raised finance to buy enough land to grow wheat on a practical scale and is grinning as grain prices shoot through the roof – though possibly not just because of Chinese ciabattas.

He obviously really enjoys the intellectual, gaming side of agriculture, the risk. The day before, a thunderstorm had passed within two miles of the rapeseed. The ripe seed-pods are very brittle and a direct hit by a thunderstorm might have reduced the yield from six tonnes per hectare to four, which is the difference between a healthy profit and an unsustainable loss. Then there is the question of when to sell. The grain will keep once it's dried. The clever guys wait till the price is right. Once the bets are placed, large-scale arable farming is as thrilling as the Grand National and as hi-tech as Formula One. It just all happens very slowly.

Cheese or beans?

Sheep prices have crashed. On our 200 acres, I've been looking at working with a contractor to turn a couple of fields over to arable. The soil around here is heavy, so we'd have to spend a fair bit on organic fertiliser and weed control, but they're doing well with weird beans next door. I've been and had a quick illicit nibble. Very good. Will the Chinese be wanting beans on their toast or cheese, I wonder.

Reindeer patter

The Norfolk farmer's wife had the best hustle I've heard for ages. She kept a pair of reindeer. They make good pets and can fetch £700 an appearance at shopping centres at Christmas time. That's got to be more than celebrities get paid for doing pantomime. They're fully booked.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine