Comment: Gove can’t have it both ways

The Brexit negotiations have reached a point where the vague promises of the Leave campaign have met reality, not least on the Irish border question. But Defra minister Michael Gove still appears to believe he can “have his cake and eat it” with high UK production standards and deregulation to allow more competitive food imports.


A hard Brexiteer, he has recently told the dairy industry to expect no migrant labour after the UK leaves Europe. He is also reported, alongside on/off friend Boris Johnson, to have written to Theresa May pressing for more deregulation and free trade with the rest of the world.

Despite this, his recent speeches have painted a pastoral vision of high UK environmental standards and animal welfare, unsupported by primary production subsidy. Mr Gove appears to believe that the UK can recoup its higher production costs by marketing these higher standards around the world under a Made in Britain label.

While this may help highly branded products such as malt whiskies and niche sectors such as organic cheese, provenance will be much less help to the commodity markets.

A former Conservative agriculture minister, John Gummer, introduced the UK’s unilateral ban on sow stalls. It came into effect in 1999, 14 years ahead of similar action in the EU. At the time, Mr Gummer assured pig producers that the British consumer would support higher welfare produce. The reality, of course, is that consumers buy on price. The UK sow herd has more than halved since the stalls ban leading to higher volumes of pigmeat imports, much of it produced in conditions illegal in the UK.

Many believe the emphasis on environment and animal welfare is a Conservative strategy to reconnect with the younger voters that deserted the party in the last General Election. It will be interesting to see how much traction higher UK food production standards have in mainstream global markets outside the EU, and how Mr Gove balances his green credentials with his Brexiteer desire for deregulation.

Posted on December 5, 2017 .

AF index measures 5% farm input inflation

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The average cost of agricultural inputs increased by 4.92% over the year to September 2017, through a combination of higher fuel prices and the devaluation of sterling after the June 2016 referendum in the UK. The company measures price inflation across the £230 million of annual purchases it makes on behalf of farmer members.

The AF Group’s AgInflation Index records an 11.5% increase in fuel costs during the period with the rising cost of Brent Crude Oil plus the weakening of sterling against the US dollar in the first half of the year.

But all product categories measured by the index were affected by price inflation. There was an 8.7% rise in fertiliser costs; 7.3% for seed; 8.5% in contract and hire charges and 1% for animal feed and health products. Crop protection products increased by 0.9% over the whole year, despite a -0.28% fall in the first six months of the period.

“Fuel is the primary driver in this latest AF AgInflation Index,” comments AF Group chief executive Jon Duffy. “In the 12 months to September 2017, Brent Crude Oil increased from $46/barrel to $55.9/barrel. Couple this with an initial devaluation in the $/£ exchange rate from 1.31 to 1.25 between September 2016 and February 2017 - although the past six months has seen the exchange rate strengthen to 1.33 in September 2017. All in, the global fuel market remains volatile, with the ever-changing cost of Brent Crude Oil and the fluctuating exchange rate.”

AF fertiliser & seed business manager Chris Haydock adds: “The seed rises are down to the increase in grain prices, while the strength of the euro and the dollar means I can’t see fertilizer prices reducing in the short term. Importers of ammonium nitrate have struggled and further increases are expected. Granular urea values have risen, with potash and phosphate prices around £15/tonne higher over the season so far.”

Fuel price inflation means arable enterprises have seen a higher rate of cost growth than the livestock ones. The index shows cereal and oilseed rape production costs rose by 5.75%, sugar beet by 4.63% and potatoes by 2.72%. Dairy farmers saw their costs rice by 3.77% (2.78% in the six months to February 2017) with beef and lamb producers 3.42%.  

The AF AgInflation Index also shows a Retail Price Index increase of 2.2%, less than half the rate of increase for farm inputs. But while bread and margarine prices fell 5%, that of granulated sugar rose by 11.5%.





Posted on December 5, 2017 .

United Oilseeds estimates 7% rise in OSR plantings

Farmer-controlled United Oilseeds is forecasting a 7% increase in the UK winter oilseed rape crop, the first increase for five years.


Based on its seed sales and a survey of its farmer members, the co-operative estimates that 602,783 hectares have been planted for harvest 2018, which is 7.07% up on Defra’s figure of 563,000ha harvested in 2017.

This would be the first area increase since 2012 when the crop peaked at 758,000ha - it has steadily declined over subsequent years. As well as the national increase, it is encouraging to see increases in the Eastern and South Eastern regions that have suffered the most from increased insect pest problems at establishment, exacerbated by the loss of crop protection actives, says UO managing director Chris Baldwin.

The business estimates the average 2017 OSR yield at 3.87 tonnes/ha, the highest since the 3.99t/ha achieved in 2011, which equates to a total UK 2017 crop output of 2.18 million tonnes. Applying a five-year mean yield of 3.5t/ha to the 2018 planting figure points to a 2.11m tonnes crop, Mr Baldwin notes.

Certified seed sales are up by 8.89% to 471,000ha in autumn 2017, comprising 175,500ha of conventional varieties (+10.9%) and 295,800ha of hybrids (+7.7%). Farm Saved Seed accounts for the remaining 130,000ha, or a 21% market share.

 This points to a 40% area share for hybrids, 37.23% for conventionals and 5.57% for HOLL and 5.12% for HEAR types. But the biggest growth - 97% - is in the Clearfield system varieties that now account for 12.13% of the UK area. 

Posted on December 5, 2017 .

Countrywide chief to resign after MVF stores sale

Countrywide Farmers has confirmed the sale of its rural retail operation to Mole Valley Farmers, subject to regulatory clearance, and the resignation of its chief executive John Hardman.

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The business revealed in early October that it was in exclusive discussions with Mole Valley Farmers over the sale of its 53 country stores. This followed the April board announcement that potential divestment was being explored following a second consecutive full year loss, partly due to ongoing delays in installing a new IT platform across the retail business.


MVF has agreed to acquire 48 of Countrywide’s current 53 stores plus the online business and IT operating systems. The 750 employees across the stores, in the distribution function and at head office are expected to transfer following an appropriate consultation process. The final price will depend on stock levels at completion, which is expected in January 2018. Countrywide will retain all the freehold properties, with Mole Valley leasing these premises.

The five stores not included in the deal - Amesbury, Glastonbury, Honiton, Towcester and Wenvoe are to close. Countrywide had already closed 14 of its less profitable stores in a cost saving measure ahead of the decision to divest.

The deal effectively doubles the MVF store network to 100 outlets – it has 52 branches under the Mole Valley Farmers and Mole Valley Country Stores fascias, plus four operating under legacy brands. These generated £195.3 million in 2016, with the Countrywide chain making £116m in the year to November 30th 2016.

Countrywide has also sold its 80% stake in the Market Harborough-based MSF Welland Valley Feeds retail store to its management for £1m, and is Ltd and is transferring its Turf & Amenity business to an unnamed buyer. This leaves it with the Rural Energy - LPG business, supplying bulk LPG and bottled gas to commercial and rural domestic customers, in addition to its property interests.  Rural Energy – LPG and Turf & Amenity comprise Countrywide’s Direct Sales division which made an operating profit of £2.5m on revenues of £18m in 2016.  

“We are delighted to have reached an agreement with Mole Valley Farmers,” says Countrywide chief executive John Hardman. “This represents an excellent opportunity to secure the future of our Retail business with an established sector leading company. I would like to thank all of our staff who work within the Retail business and have remained committed through a significant period of change and uncertainty. We are very grateful for their contribution and wish them all the very best for the future.”

For MVF, chief executive Andrew Jackson adds: “We very much look forward to welcoming and integrating the Countrywide Retail team into the company. My perception is that the staff have remained loyal and focussed on maintaining business performance despite uncertainty about their futures, which is a commendable measure of their stamina and commitment to the business and customers alike.”

● Following these changes the Countrywide board has reviewed the future company structure and agreed “substantial changes to the chief executive role.  As a result, Mr Hardman is to resign from the company in January. Chief financial officer Julie Wirth will act as interim chief executive. Mr Hardman has worked for the business for 32 years.

Posted on December 5, 2017 .

New boss at ForFarmers UK

The UK’s largest feed manufacturer, ForFarmers, has appointed Steven Read as chief operating officer (COO) for the UK business from January 1st 2018.

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He succeeds Iain Gardner, COO at ForFarmers UK and a member of the Group Executive Committee for the Netherlands-based co-operative, who is retiring after 29 years with the company.

Mr Read, who has worked at the business for 31 years, is also a member of the ForFarmers Group Executive Committee. He assumed his current Lochem HQ-based role of supply chain director in June 2016, with responsibility for purchasing, formulation, and manufacturing & logistics.

“Steven is the natural and logical person to be appointed COO of ForFarmers UK, given his broad experience and successful implementation of changes in the ForFarmers organisation,” says group chief executive Yoram Knoop, “and the fact that he has previously been part of the UK senior management team for many years.”

Mr Gardner has led ForFarmers UK since the Dutch group acquired BOCM Pauls in July 2012, when he first joined the group executive committee. At the time of the acquisition the agreement was made that Iain Gardner would step down at an appropriate time. The UK arm has now been rebranded under ForFarmers colours with a new central administrative office and HQ opened near Bury St Edmunds in June.

Iain Gardner and Yoram Knoop opening the new ForFarmers UK HQ, June 2017

Iain Gardner and Yoram Knoop opening the new ForFarmers UK HQ, June 2017

“'Iain Gardner has been instrumental in leading the organisation to become the leading feed company in the United Kingdom,” notes Mr Knoop. “In the past four years, he has implemented the Horizon 2020 strategy, integrated several acquisitions and laid the foundations of many transformational projects to prepare the organisation for future challenges. We thank him for his commitment and contribution.”

Posted on December 5, 2017 .

Core Phillips McDougall team moves to Agbioinvestor

Much of the analyst team behind the respected Phillips McDougall (PMD) crop protection and seeds market analysis service has transferred to a new business, Agbioinvestor.

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Dr John McDougall and Matthew Phillips co-founded PMD in 1999 and it rapidly established itself as the premier source of information on the global crop protection and seeds sectors. The business was acquired by Informa plc in 2013, the company behind the Agra Europe and Agrow brands among other agri-food titles. Both Dr McDougall and Mr Phillips subsequently retired from the business.

Earlier this year, Dr McDougall created Agbioinvestor, an online platform initially providing news and analysis relevant to the global investment community exploring opportunities in the agri-food chain.

This month sees four analysts with more than forty years of collective experience gained in senior analytical and managerial roles at PMD join Agbioinvestor - Fraser McDougall, Allister Phillips, Derek Oliphant and Garry Mabon.  As a result, the platform is expanding its services into the agrochemical and biologicals; seeds & traits; digital agriculture; commodities and related industry sectors, in addition to undertaking bespoke consultancy projects. 

“I am delighted to announce these additions to the Agbioinvestor team,” says Dr McDougall. “This expansion of the team at Agbioinvestor will provide us with the opportunity to deliver industry-leading analytical reports to our valued clients.” These include the Crop Protection Industry Report and The Seed Industry Report, providing qualitative and quantitative analysis of their respective global sectors with key data, market insights and company financials.

Posted on December 5, 2017 .

Comment: Hands free harvest points to agri AI revolution

Last week’s remote controlled harvest of the ‘Hands Free Hectare’ of spring barley at Harper Adams University College was the culmination of an impressive experiment to grow a crop using robotic machines. No human had entered the plot from establishment to harvest - even the collection of grain samples to see if the crop was fit to combine was performed by drone.

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While small scale and relatively ‘Heath Robinson”, the Harper trial shows the way the industry is moving. Both John Deere and AGCO completed deals to acquire precision and robotics technologies this month - these traditional engineering businesses see the need to invest to keep up in this field. At the same time, major crop protection businesses are increasing their “big data” capability through collaborations with data providers and platforms.

We are still at an early stage in the marriage of data and field machinery, linked to satellite observation of weather, water and crop progress. But it is clear we are on the brink of agricultural artificial intelligence (AI) that uses sensors to measure weather, soil and crop conditions, using data to decide when to authorise robotic systems to implement field operations.

In time, this automation must include the delivery of essential inputs to the point of use and post harvest collection, grading and transport of the resulting produce into the food chain. It will be socially disruptive, in terms of jobs, but also require capital investment.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, traders continue to grapple with the fallout of the long, drawn out combinable crops harvest, which is by no means complete in some areas. It is taking time and money to identify where the quality is, and which crops have been downgraded by exposure to wet weather after ripening.

Will the brave new world of artificial intelligence be able to replace this too?

Posted on September 12, 2017 .

EU OKs Red Tractor biofuel grain

The European Commission has granted a temporary approval for Red Tractor assured crops to be use in biofuel manufacture, with the new approval backdated to the former expiry date.

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The move follows the expiry of the previous five-year approval which had been reported as causing grain movement problems, although the extent of this is hard to gauge.

The Commission has informed all EU-approved biofuel assurance schemes that the Red Tractor scheme should continue to be considered as compliant with EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) sustainability criteria until November 5th 2017, pending its full five-year re-approval. The previous five year approval had expired in early August, meaning   Red Tractor-approved crops could theoretically no longer enter the European biofuels market.

The NFU says the extension will end “the severe disruption experienced by farmers recently in ex-farm grain movements”. While the issue attracted plenty of comment on farmer forums, grain supplies to the two major wheat bioethanol plants were not disrupted, with no reported incidences of contract defaults. However, there could have been a problem had the Commission not reacted so quickly with a temporary approval. Even so, some merchants had to invest in contingency arrangements, and there is criticism that the approval was allowed to expire in the first place, with little communication of the problem and its potential impact before the busy harvest period.   

A Red Tractor spokesman stated that the body had applied for renewal in February this year. However, the process was complicated by the need to incorporate those growers who had converted land to arable production after January 1st 2008.

“Although all the required data was supplied, delays processing the information within the European Commission led to a lapse in recognition. This has now been resolved with the granting of a three-month extension. While the delay was frustrating, the good news is that the changes to the scheme have been fully accepted, so every grower in the scheme will benefit,” he said.

“The extension is also backdated to August 6th 2017, which means that any Red Tractor crops destined for the biofuels market will be recognised as approved by the RED. So, if any growers had issues with outgoing crops or grain, these should now be resolved. Furthermore, the Commission has confirmed that there is nothing outstanding or further required from Red Tractor, to achieve a full five-year renewal of the scheme, which should be granted in the next few weeks. 

NFU combinable crops board chairman Mike Hambly observes: “An expedited temporary solution was needed and this is what we have received. We are pleased the EU Commission has been able to respond to the need for market certainty and to avoid further disruption. The Commission confirmed that the Red Tractor standards, as expected, would qualify for approval. We look forward to full five-year re-approval early this autumn.”


Posted on September 12, 2017 .

UK lags EU within ForFarmers H1 results

Interim results from European feed manufacturer ForFarmers show a 34% fall in profitability and 7% in revenues at the UK operation, which the company attributes to Brexit uncertainty delaying herd size recovery. But Group results are up as EU farmers benefit from rising dairy and meat prices.

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ForFarmers’ UK arm made an operating profit of €5.50 million on revenues of €315.65m in the six months to June 30th 2017, compared to €8.38m and €339.1m in H1 2016. Domestic volumes manufactured at 1.48m tonnes, were also down on the prior period’s 1.54m tonnes.

The company says UK profitability was affected by currency, with a negative exchange rate of 9.1%, in addition to competition for sales in the pig sector as ongoing consolidation leads to fewer but larger accounts buying bigger volumes on longer contracts. But a new dairy product range, based on the Dutch Feed2Milk concept, was positively received by customers and helped lift margins.

Lower ruminant and pig numbers contributed to the 3.9% fall in feed volumes, as did the divestment of the Leafield former feedstuffs operation to SugaRich at the end of the prior first half. But poultry volumes were up.

“There is great uncertainty about the consequences of Brexit for the agricultural sector in the UK,” notes the company. “This is why ruminant and swine farmers are reticent, among others, to recover their herd sizes, which were reduced last year. Despite this, the market appears to be recovering slowly.” It adds that UK farmers also tended to opt for cheaper, lower margin feed products.

UK operating expenses were 15.4% lower in the period. First half 2016 included a €1.6m restructuring charge, while a lower headcount, reduced vehicle leasing costs and the lower manufactured volume all helped savings in the latest period.  The half saw the business centralise its UK administration at a new HQ building in Bury St Edmunds.

In May, ForFarmers UK acquired Wilde Agriculture, the Wigton, Cumbria-based livestock consultancy business that includes the John Peel feed buying group. It paid €2m including a €0.5m contingent consideration. The business is also on track to bring its new £10m feed mill near Exeter on-stream by the end of the year.

The ForFarmers Group, which covers Holland, Belgium and parts of Germany as well as the UK, has posted an 18% rise in profitability on 3.7% higher revenues. It made an operating profit of €38.7m on sales of €1.11 billion in H1 2017, up from the €32.8m and €1.17bn from the previous first half. The business says the devaluation of sterling since the end of June 2016 cost it €6.0m or 3.4% in the latest six months.

Total feed volumes were up 3.6% to 4.73m tonnes, with compound sales growing by 6.2% to 3.3m tonnes, largely through last year’s purchase of the Dutch Vleuten-Steijn pig feed operation.

“Volume growth in the Netherlands and Germany/Belgium was higher than the volume decrease in the UK,” notes the company. “As of mid-2016 the financial situation for farmers in Europe has significantly improved due to enhanced milk and swine prices, which partly explains the volume growth in compound feed within total feed.”

“The first half-year results show that our Total Feed approach is gaining more and more momentum,” notes ForFarmers Group chief executive Yoram Knoop. “In our innovative Total Feed solutions we are combining feed products, advice and tools. Products and advice are aligned with one another to lead to a better return on the farm.

But Mr Knoop warns that the rate of growth is unlikely to persist into the second half, due to factors including the slow UK recovery; the impact on phosphate limiting regulations on dairy farmers in Holland and the as yet unknown effects of the fipronil-contaminated eggs issue in Holland and Belgium.

“Our customers are currently in better financial shape than a year ago, when milk and pig prices were under pressure. Farmers, especially in the Netherlands and Germany/Belgium, are buying more high quality feeds again to increase their production. There is large uncertainty in the UK about the consequences of Brexit, but in spite of this, the market there appears to be recovering slowly,” Mr Knoop concludes.

Posted on September 12, 2017 .

Kent Wool Growers goes under

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Kent Wool Growers (KWG), the long established farmer-owned business based in Ashford, has called in the receiver. A British Wool spokeswoman confirmed that the KWG situation would not affect its registered producers, and the collection and grading of the 2017 wool clip will go ahead as normal.

Steve Absolom and Will Wright from KPMG have been appointed joint administrators for the KWG business, which blames a downturn in both retail and account sales for its demise.

The business distributes feed made at Duffield’s’ Wingham mill, and a range of horse feeds under the Baileys, Dengie and Dodson & Horrell brands. It has three rural retail outlets at Ashford and Eastry in Kent and at Handcross West Sussex; a fuel brokerage service; and acts as an ‘A’ merchant for the British Wool Marketing Board, collecting and grading wool from across Kent and East and West Sussex.

KPMG says the business is continuing to trade while they seek a purchaser for all or parts of the business as a going concern.

 “We have received a number of expressions of interest in the business and assets, and so our efforts are focussed on achieving a going concern sale which will secure as many jobs as possible,” states Mr Absolom. “The stores remain open and KWG continues to support the farming community as best it can in these circumstances.”

Kent Wool Growers was founded in 1920 and currently employs 48 staff.

Posted on September 12, 2017 .

NWF recovers from H1 loss to full year profit

Feed manufacturer NWF Agriculture has bounced back from a first half loss to report better than expected full year figures. With its delayed feed capacity restructuring project now complete, it is confident of future growth.

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The company, one of three divisions of the NWF Group, has reported a headline operating profit of £1.5 million on revenues of £158.2m in the year ended May 31st 2017, compared to £2.1m and £135.8m from the previous year. However, after exceptional costs of £1.2m, operating profit is £300,000. Delays in commissioning the additional capacity in Cumbria, plus redundancy and relocation costs, resulted in the exceptional charge of £1.2m.

In June, the Group had warned of a reduction in full year volumes and revenues, following NWF Agriculture’s earlier first half loss of £300,000 on revenues of £65.1m.  

NWF says low milk prices, averaging 20.5ppl at the start of the year in May 2016, depressed the feed market over the summer, but an increase in milk prices from the autumn to 26.9ppl by the year end, saw a rise in feed demand. While the company’s full year ruminant volumes were up by 1.5%, the growth came from sheep feed products. NWF’s total feed volume for the year was 589,000 tonnes, up from 2016’s 580,000 tonnes.

But production costs were higher too, due to volatility in the commodity and foreign exchange markets. NWF’s feed materials cost increased by 17% from the start of the financial year until March 2017, since when they have eased. But the market couldn’t absorb these extra costs, leading to tighter margins.

The year saw a £5.2 million investment programme to match production capacity to the company’s trading area. The former SC Feeds mill in Staffordshire was closed and the Jim Peet mill at Longtown, acquired in 2015, expanded significantly. The business also invested in automating the blend plant at its Wardle headquarters in Cheshire to meet growing demand and secure efficiencies. The additional capacity is now fully operational - it “provides world class operating units close to our key farming customers from the South West of England to Scotland and gives an effective platform for further development.”

NWF says increasing its focus on animal nutrition through providing high quality feed advice and value added products for its 4,750 farmer customers across the country remains a key priority. This strategy has been particularly important in recent months as milk producers seek to increase output in the light of better prices.

With an operational platform comprising three equally spaced feed mills along the western side of England, and improved milk prices, NWF Agriculture says it is well placed to grow organically and to seek further market consolidation opportunities through purchasing volume. But any acquisitions will need to be synergistic with the existing business, capable of development and have a proven management team.

The NWF Group posted full year operating profit of £9m on revenues of £555.5m, up from £8.7m and £465.9m in the previous year. It says strong performances at its Fuel and Food divisions helped offset the difficult year for Feeds.

“NWF delivered a solid performance last year with increased activity in all three divisions and the benefits of the diversified business model resulted in record earnings per share,” notes Group chief executive Richard Whiting. “The increase in profitability and strong cash generation also enabled the Group to continue its investment strategy, with major feed mill expansions completed in the year.

“We continue to see opportunity for further strategic and operational progress and our performance in the current financial year to date has been in line with our expectations.”

Posted on September 12, 2017 .

Gafta to end its UK store and transport assurance

The Grain & Feed Trade Association (Gafta), the London-based body representing international grain and feed material traders, is to withdraw from the storage and haulage elements of its Gafta Trade Assurance Scheme (GTAS).


The decision will affect 92 storekeepers in the UK and the Ukraine and some 400 UK haulage businesses. GTAS is   independently audited by NSF Certification UK.

Gafta says the move follows a review of its trade assurance service provision, including GTAS and the Approved Registers, to ensure it is meeting the needs of its members as the industry continues to change. This concluded that Gafta’s core purpose is supporting and developing the ancillary support services used by its international trading members, such as supervision, arbitration, fumigation and analysis, rather than the storage and transport functions which are duplicated by a “plethora of schemes across Europe”.

This process led to last month’s Gafta Council approving plans to develop and rebrand the trade assurance offering, aligning it more closely with Gafta contract terms.

As a result, Gafta will create a new Approved Register of Fumigators alongside its existing Approved Registers of Superintendents and Analysts, which themselves will be enhanced.

The GTAS changes include the phasing out of the codes of practice for Road Transport (hauliers) and Bulk Storage. The Analysts and Supervision codes of practice will be revised to support the requirements of the existing Gafta Approved Registers, while the Fumigation code of practice will be updated and become a requirement of a new Gafta Approved Register.

The association says members affected by the changes – particularly those using the haulage and storage codes - will be contacted individually. It plans to phase out the two codes over an 18 month period to the end of 2018.

“There are a number of alternative food and feed safety schemes in the marketplace and Gafta will continue to support members of these codes throughout the transition period,” it states. “The GTAS scheme is audited by NSF Certification with whom Gafta has worked since the launch of GTAS in 2005. It is hoped this relationship will continue as the scheme develops its codes of practice for analysts, fumigators, supervision and trading.

“Training courses will be developed to help members meet the requirements of the new codes of practice and to improve standards across the industry. Gafta remains committed to providing first class services to its members and is in a unique position to raise the standards of the ancillary support services in international agricultural commodity trading.”

The AIC, aware that Gafta has announced its withdrawal of transport and storage assurance in the UK, says it has written to all GTAS participants to update them on its Trade Assurance Scheme for Combinable Crops (TASCC).

“Assurance is a vital part of the supply chain that delivers feed and food safety,” notes John Kelley, managing director of AIC Services. “TASCC is an up-to-date scheme with many benefits that delivers this assurance. We look forward to helping former GTAS participants meet their new assurance needs.”

Posted on September 12, 2017 .

Comment: Brexit divisions unhelpful for UK agrifood sector

One year on from the EU referendum, with Article 50 triggered in March, the uncertainty over the UK’s approach to Brexit remains. Cabinet infighting only adds to the impression of disarray.

The prime minister’s failure to secure a mandate for her Lancaster House Brexit vision in last June’s election has lead to an apparent consensus building under Philip Hammond for a more economically sensible transition period out of the EU. But this has yet to be agreed at cabinet.

New Defra Secretary Michael Gove has spent his first few weeks telling his audience what they want to hear – he told the NFU in June that he backed high quality food production, while in July he unveiled his Green Brexit vision to an audience of environmentalists. But there was a clear signal that public support will move from production to public goods, and away from larger businesses.

That was the easy bit – Mr Gove now has to distil these views into a workable agricultural policy, and enshrine this in law through an Agriculture Bill. Assuming the present administration lasts, this can only pass through the Parliamentary process with the support of Scottish Conservatives and the DUP in Northern Ireland – both areas where agriculture forms a greater part of the regional economy than in England.

Of course there are opportunities for a post-Brexit UK agriculture to benefit from technology and innovation, and to be less constrained by a common European policy. But divisions this early over trading standards in food products between Defra and the international trade secretary don’t bode well for the UK competing in global food markets.

Posted on August 3, 2017 .

Carr’s acquires Mortimer Feeds

Carrs Billington Agriculture, part of the Carr's Group of companies, has confirmed its acquisition of Mortimer Feeds, the Macclesfield-based ruminant feed merchant business, as its parent group reports a recovery in its UK agriculture operations.

Mortimer Feeds, first established in 1987 as Balanced Feeds, is mainly focussed on the Cheshire trading area, with business in Shropshire, Derbyshire and North Wales.  It retails ruminant compound feeds and blends made to its own formulations alongside minerals, grass seed, silage additives and bucket lick products. Carr’s was a supplier to the company.

“The acquisition adds incremental feed volume and converts some existing merchant business into direct sales, and is in line with our stated strategy of strengthening our presence in our current geographies and leading in dairy nutrition,” states CBA.

Meanwhile, a trading update from CBA parent the Carr’s Group ahead of its year-end in early September, notes that the recovery in UK agriculture continues, and is expected to steadily improve. “All aspects of the business performed well. Feed volumes and like-for-like retail sales are running ahead of the prior year, while machinery revenues are significantly ahead of the prior year.”

The Group adds that feed block sales in the UK remain in line with expectations, with volume growth during the main selling season. But its US feed block business had a “disappointing” year as  “significantly lower cattle prices” affected feed block sales volumes in that market. “The recovery of the USA market continues as anticipated and trading remains in line with our expectations,” it says.

Overall, the Group expects the recovery in UK agriculture to steadily continue, with “early positive indications” of a revival in the US feed block market as cattle prices gradually recover.

“It is pleasing to see UK agriculture continuing to improve, buoyed by the improvement in farmgate milk prices,” says Carrs’ Group chief executive Tim Davies. “With green shoots of recovery in the US market, we are confident of the medium term prospects within our agriculture division.”

At the half year stage, Carr’s Agriculture division reported a pre-tax profit of £7.23 million on sales of £160.5m in the six months to March 4th 2017, compared to £6.95m and £139.32m in the same period of 2016.

The UK feed business had returned 11% volume growth in the period against a national feed market that was 1-2% down. The company’s UK feedblock sales grew by 6%, but US volumes dropped by 10%. Earlier this year, Carr’s acquired the Horse & Pet Warehouse retail business in Ayr for its retail chain, and it has since announced plans to build a new blends plant near Stone in Staffordshire.

Posted on August 3, 2017 .

New blends plant for CBA

Carrs Billington Agriculture (CBA) is to invest in a new feed blending plant in Staffordshire. This will be its sixth blending facility.

The company is to partner with the B & R Deane farming business to construct a purpose-built blends facility at Micklow in Staffordshire.  The new plant is located a few miles from the CBA compound feed mill at Stone, allowing the company greater economies of scale across the two sites.

The investment includes a bin-based feed materials storage system with blends manufactured through a Forberg-type mixer. The new plant will be able to produce a range of high quality blends and coarse mixes, with distribution either in bulk or by tote bins.

“This investment is another step in the development of Carrs Billington’s feed business, states CBA operations director Paul Steeples. “It demonstrates our commitment to the UK livestock farming industry.”

As well as feed mills in Carlisle, Lancaster and Stone, CBA operates blend plants in Cumbria, Lancaster, Newtown, Northwich and Carmarthen.


Posted on August 3, 2017 .

Agrovista acquires Terra Firma for its amenity division

Agronomy services company Agrovista UK has bought the Terra Firma (Scotland) business to integrate into its Sherriff Amenity turf and landscaping division.

Stirling-based Terra Firm was established by Simon Gough in 2000, and has grown into one of Scotland’s largest suppliers to the amenity and local authority markets.

Agrovista is to combine the two operations in Scotland under Mr Gough’s leadership and the Sherriff brand. It says the integration of the existing technical expertise and broad product ranges into a single business will provide land managers, local authorities, contractors, groundsmen and greenkeepers in Scotland with a full agronomy service, research driven advice, new product innovation and access to an extensive local distribution network.

“We are delighted to welcome Simon and his team from Terra Firma into Sherriff Amenity,” says Agrovista managing director Chris Clayton. “The acquisition will strengthen the business in Scotland and provide synergies across the business which will ultimately benefit our customers. This, combined with further product developments, will generate exciting opportunities from the combined business.”

Mr Gough adds: “Terra Firma joining with Sherriff Amenity is a really exciting prospect. The combination of both companies’ industry knowledge, experience and customer service ethos will form a strong, sustainable and service focused business model moving forward.”

Posted on August 3, 2017 .

Saxon completes its office move

Saxon Agriculture, the UK arable marketing business owned by GrainCorp, has completed its office move from Kings Lynn to Swaffham within the county of Norfolk in time for harvest 2017. The new premises were officially opened at the end of June by GrainCorp chief executive Mark Palmquist.

At the same time, the company has moved its Saxon Organic business, located in Bury St Edmunds for historical reasons, to the new site. Saxon managing director Nigel Gossett says the imminent expiry of leases at its “tired” Kings Lynn site, where the business had been based for 25 years, and at Suffolk, prompted the relocation into a new, purpose built single site office.

With more space and better telecommunications, the new office is both more efficient and pleasant to work in, notes Mr Gossett, while remaining close to its East Anglian customer base. “Our strong association with quality crops and the high level of personal service provided to our farmer customers drives this business. We enjoy a high level of forward contracting, can supply market information and strength through our global parent to support our growers, plus we have the local trading experience to take advantage of market opportunities.”

Saxon was established in 1993 to procure malting barley for Moray Firth Maltings, now part of Baird’s Malt which was acquired by Australian multinational GrainCorp in 2010. Saxon specialises in marketing higher value and specialist crops including malting barley, milling wheat, pulses, linseed and High Erucic rapeseed.

Posted on August 3, 2017 .

New owner for European Oat Millers

The UK and Europe’s second largest oat processor, European Oat Millers (EOM), has been acquired by Canada’s biggest agribusiness, Richardson International, in a move to expand the latter’s global footprint. Both companies are privately owned and financial details are not available.

EOM was founded by Bill and David Jordan on a site in Bedford in the early 1970s. Both are members of the long-established Jordans Cereals feed and flour milling and cereals manufacturing family business that was sold to Associated British Foods in 2008.

An equity investment by Conagra in the 1980s financed early expansion, with growth continuing after the Jordan family bought Conagra out a decade later. The business opened a second factory in Bedford in 2013.

EOM has grown to become the second largest oat miller in Europe behind Cheshire’s Morning Foods. It makes a wide range of oat products, including flakes, flour and groats, in addition to wheat and barley flakes, extruded ingredients and products. The company exports to continental Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia as well as supplying the UK.

Richardson is an integrated arable marketing, grain handling and processing business with its headquarters in Winnipeg. Tracing its history back 150 years, it operates across Canada’s grain belt, with two mills in the US states of Kansas and Nebraska. It became the largest oat miller in North America through the acquisition of three oat processing plants in Canada and the Nebraska mill. These were among a package of former Viterra assets, divested as part of Glencore’s takeover of Canada’s Viterra in 2013.

“We are excited to build on our success in value-added processing and extend our food manufacturing footprint to a new geography,” says Richardson president and chief executive Curt Vossen. “As the largest oat miller in North America, we now look forward to building a presence in Europe to enhance our ability to compete in the global marketplace.

“European Oat Millers is a solid, family-owned business that is well-established in the UK. We have been very impressed with both the quality of the business and its people and believe it is an excellent complement to our Richardson Milling division. Looking ahead, we will build on the investments that have already been made, including increasing manufacturing capacity, and will continue to seek opportunities to expand our global business.”

Posted on August 3, 2017 .

Comment – election upset halt Brexit cliff edge?

It used to be that a week was a long time in politics – now a mere weekend is long enough to turn the orthodoxy upside down. So where does the political upset following last week’s general election leave agriculture?

Theresa May’s reverse alchemy has wiped out her previous small majority in the House of Commons, and her new administration - however long it will last – is going to rely on the support of the Scottish Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Both are from UK regions that voted to stay in the EU – although the DUP backed Brexit – and both are areas where agriculture features heavily in the local economy.

Brexit negotiations are due to begin next week. The EU side has made it clear that there must be real progress towards an agreement on the UK’s financial settlement, the future status of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in Europe and on the Northern Ireland border, before any further trade discussions can begin. The UK is still holding out for parallel talks.

We know the DUP believes a frictionless border is essential for the economies on both sides of Ireland, a factor that is also high on the UK agrifood lobby’s wishlist. There is also a consensus behind a “softer” approach to Brexit, through a combination of the influence of the Scots and DUP on the Conservative party; the disappearance of the UKIP vote in the election and the assumption that the electoral drubbing was partly a reaction to Mrs May’s previous “hard” Brexit stance.

 Of course, we will never now know whether her hardline “no deal is better than a bad deal” position, set out at Lancaster House in January, was her actual belief, or an initial negotiating position with room for concessions in the actual horse trading process. Time and circumstanceswill tell what shape Brexit will eventually take.

In the election aftermath, Mrs May has replaced Defra minister Andrea Leadsom with Michael Gove. One of the key Brexiteers in the Referendum campaign, he was summarily returned to the back benches when Mrs May achieved the premiership in 2016. Clearly returned to the cabinet to neutralise any backbench opposition in her newly straitened circumstances, he will certainly be more hands on than Mrs Leadsom, who did or said nothing of note in her year at Defra.

Mr Gove’s Euroscepticism is reported to be born of a visceral hatred for the Common Fisheries Policy, which he believes did for his parents’ fishing operation in North East Scotland. As minister of education he relished standing up to the teaching establishment, to the extent where prime minister Cameron had to remove him, and he was just getting into his stride with the legal establishment as Lord Chancellor before the Referendum and his subsequent sacking by Mrs May.

So he is unlikely to be scared of the agricultural establishment in the crucial task of moving the UK from the CAP to an independent policy, assuming the May administration lasts. Interestingly, his appointment was broadly welcomed by farming organisations, but bitterly attacked by the green lobbies, particularly on his record of trying to remove climate change from the school curriculum.

So, to summarise, we have a weakened administration that will be relying on the Scots and Northern Ireland regions, a “disruptor” Defra secretary of state and a government trying to find a consensus just one week before the Brexit talks start in earnest.

The first May administration promised to maintain CAP payments at their present level until 2020, and the latest manifesto extended that pledge to the end of the current Parliament, which could be as long as 2022. Mr Gove is already on record as being committed to this, and to leaving the environment in a better shape than it is in now. He has also promised to consult with the industry over the question of labour availability.  

Meanwhile, the “green” lobby has coalesced under the Sustain banner, with a new post-Brexit agricultural policy manifesto calling for support to be switched from production to environmental benefits and for regulation on a hazard-based approach and using the precautionary principle.

Now is the time for the agribusiness coalition and farm lobbies to offer Mr Gove a single considered consensus on how a productive UK agriculture can both reduce the UK food deficit and increase its export potential, while leaving room for niche markets with higher environmental benefits.

Posted on June 22, 2017 and filed under Brexit.

Comment: Glyphosate - political controversy clouds future availability

The European Commission’s starting compromise on the highly politicised reauthorisation of glyphosate for use in the EU has pleased no-one. But could an independent UK authority do better?

The agrochemical’s 15 year registration period ended on June 30th 2015, and was extended for a temporary 18 months while the Commission sought to balance the agricultural demand for this product against the ongoing opposition from the “green” lobby.

None of the EU’s scientific advisers can find any reason to curb the product’s use. Farmers point out that the active is essential to low impact establishment techniques such as min-till and direct drilling. It enables them to achieve weed control without moving huge amounts of soil and the associated diesel use and loss of soil organic matter.

The Commission’s initial proposal of a 10 year authorisation period has angered farmers and their advisers who see no reason to reduce the traditional 15 year term, while displeasing the antis who want it banned altogether. The EU’s Health and Food Safety Commissioner has conceded that the issue has become politicised.

Less regulation and evidence based decision making was one of the Brexit benefits promised to UK agriculture before the Referendum. But will an independent UK government be stronger than the EU authorities in standing up to the environmental lobby on issues such as this?

Posted on May 31, 2017 .