Tag Archives: Ukrainian grain

Cognitive Dissonance and keeping people fed.

Don’t you know there is a war on? What does it take to get people to take things seriously? Do we need Chief Warden Hodges from Dad’s Army storming round Brussels shouting ‘Put that Light Out’?

There is a problem with people. They will continue to believe things even when they’re obviously not true. As an example of this, YouGov do a daily chat, they email it to tens of thousands of people. They will ask various questions on the subject chosen for today, but the fascinating part is that you see the number of people who have agreed with which answer.

So when they asked what precautions people were taking against covid, I took a screenshot of the answer. 47% of people said they were wearing a facemask. I have to ask where? In the comfort and safety of their own home? When they’re in bed? Because they’re certainly not wearing it outside. In the last fortnight I’ve travelled on mainline railways, the London under and over ground, I’ve been in shops and meetings all over the place. People wearing masks form, I would guess, no more than 1% of the population. So why on earth are people ticking the box saying they still wear a mask?

Is it they want the smug glow of being a caring and concerned person who thinks of others, without actually having to go to the effort of being a caring and concerned person who thinks about others? Note at this point I’m not saying do or don’t wear a mask. That is entirely up to the individual and I’m not going to point the finger or mock somebody’s decision on this topic whatever they decide. I just want to know why such a large proportion of the population who obviously don’t wear masks, claim they still do?

But this morning on the radio I heard an even more ridiculous example of an inability to accept the real world. Anybody who has been part of the EU will know that its bureaucracy can take years to catch up with reality. But the Ukrainian war has thrown this into high relief. Ignoring foot dragging by the leaders of wealthy countries who’re so in hock to Russian gas it’s an embarrassment to their citizens, just look at the borders.

In the UK we’re arguing about the Northern Ireland Protocol and the EU is threatening trade wars and all sorts of things. But on the Rumanian frontier with Ukraine, a country they’re trying to help, farmers are trying to get Ukrainian grain out of the Ukraine. This is vital, it is almost ridiculously important, people will starve without that grain. More power to their elbow. Yet the EU is doing the equivalent of standing outside your house and clapping ineffectually.

One farmer has taken four loads (at 25 tons a load) across the border. The queue to get out of the Ukraine with your grain is 20km, the queue to get back into the Ukraine is 15km. He could spend six days in the queue. On the fourth trip, Rumanian customs demanded paperwork that hadn’t been needed on the first three trips.

A picture taken by a Ukrainian farmer of the queue he was stuck in.

The Ukrainian farmers are running out of money, they’re running out of fuel. The EU is managing to do what even Putin couldn’t manage.

And anyway, what sort of utter muppet creates a 20km queue in a war zone where the Russians are targeting civilian infrastructure? How many dead do the EU want? Perhaps if senior bureaucrats were forced to ride in the wagon caps, things might move faster?

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What do I know, talk to an expert.

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

Preparing for war?

One job I have, every year, is cutting next year’s firewood. This winter I’ve been tidying up corners of the yard from time to time, mainly with an axe and chainsaw. Out here (a mile from a gas terminal) we don’t have gas, and one of our main sources of heat is the open fire.

One side effect is that I’ve been able to watch gas prices with some dispassion. After all, the oil we need for our cooker hasn’t been capped or anything, it’s just gone up and the media hasn’t particularly bewailed our fate. Still, whilst cutting next year’s firewood (hopefully some will be for the year after as well) I do wonder what the world will be like when we come to use it.

I’ve been watching the Ukraine with rather more interest than I’ve been watching gas prices. Some of the commentators have said things along the lines of, ‘The Russians are waiting for a cold spell, as January has been too warm and they want a sharp frost for the tanks.’ If so, they could be disappointed, because the forecast for February in Kiev (or Kyiv) is to be milder than usual. If the Russians don’t invade, the weather might be the reason.

Frankly I can think of no other reasons. We’ve had a lot of posturing but I think it’s becoming obvious that the Ukrainians are being hung out to dry. People are threatening economic sanctions, but with the Germans depending on Russian Gas, and the EU seeming to be equivocal on the level of sanctions they would impose, I can see Putin assuming that people are going to posture but now do anything.

From his point of view, he could do with a cold snap, the ground hard enough for his tanks, and the wind biting enough to get Germans turning up their central heating.

But from a farming point of view, what does it all mean? Well the EU imported 13.6 million tons of grain from the Ukraine. Most maize, but to put it in proportion, the UK produced about that amount of wheat in 2018, so it’s a lot. Given the broad grain fields of the Ukraine are classic tank country, either they’ll be under Russian control or nobody will be ploughing them.

But at the time when we suddenly need more grain, the price of gas has gone through the roof, pushing up the price of fertilisers. In December 2020, imported Ammonium Nitrate fertiliser was £217 a ton. In December 2021 the same fertiliser went up to £632 a ton. I’ve talked to a lot of farmers and a surprising number of them are assuming their yields will drop because they cannot afford to buy the usual inputs.

On top of that, the pressure on agriculture from all the environmental lobby groups, the general public and even the government, is to ‘go green’ and do more environmental things. I’ve looked carefully at the new Sustainable Farming Incentive. Like the cry to ‘plant for trees to save the world,’ it is impossible to see how we can keep up output and join these schemes.

There’s a general feeling that government will have to step in this summer and do something to hold gas prices down, perhaps by a subsidy to the suppliers who’ll pay it back when the price comes down. If the price comes down. But I think the situation is going to get far more difficult than that. If there is a war in the Ukraine, it’ll be more than gas prices that go up.

I wonder if next year, when I’m burning that wood, I’ll be reading up on a Defra scheme to increase food production, perhaps by encouraging farmers to use more sewage sludge as fertiliser, and to farm more intensively? Perhaps a Russian invasion will be turned back by Extinction Rebellion protestors gluing themselves to the roads in front of the tanks; on the grounds that the tanks have diesel engines and they’re polluting the environment. I suspect one scenario is about as likely as the other.

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There again, what do I know, ask an expert

As a reviewer commented, “Dipping in and out of this book, as ever with Jim Webster’s farming anecdotes, is a great way to relax – although thought provoking at times, despairing at others, the humour is ever present, and how welcome is that in these times?”