Britain is an eminently sensible place in the world to grow wheat. It’s soils and climate suit the cultivation of the crop, which is why we boast some of the best yields in the world.

But despite this suitability, history suggests that without some level of government support, British farmers tend to walk away from its production. Hence in the hundred years after the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1848, Britain became a huge net importer of wheat to the point in 1939 80% of our wheat needs as a nation came from abroad.

The UK wheat area reached a low point of just 400,000ha in the early 1930s. Then the Second World War brought a change of policy with guaranteed prices first through the UK policy of deficiency payments and then from the 1970s onwards the EU’s intervention system.

By the mid 1980s, the UK wheat acreage peaked at 2M ha and the country had become a net exporter. With the de-coupling reforms to the CAP of the 2000s the support system became more indirect with production falling back to 1.8M ha and the import/export balance of trade approached parity depending on size of UK harvest.

Now, Brexit ushers in yet another chapter with production subsidies to be ended in 2027 to be replaced by payments for public goods. Despite the fact wheat has been the key staple in the diet of the British for millennia, it’s production is not considered a public good by the current UK Government.

So what of the future? Without any production support will UK arable farmers again start to walk away from wheat production or has the world moved on to the point the lessons of history teach us nothing about the future? Even with climate change, our weather will probably still give us world-beating yields. Indeed most climate change models suggest yields will be adversely impacted to a greater extent in other cereal-growing parts of the world, leaving Britain a relatively even better place to grow the crop. Furthermore, most forecasters predict the world’s population will continue to grow even if there is now considerable debate as to how fast.

But there’s a simple fact: even in Britain, putting a wheat seed in the ground is a bit of a gamble. If the growing season is benign and the world price bullish then it’s a risk worth taking that will show a positive return. But if the astrological planets of yield and markets don’t align then the reward doesn’t justify the risk.

Without any government support to help underwrite the risk then it may well be that in the autumn of 2027 some, maybe many, of us may feel it more sensible to keep the drill in the shed. If subsequently bad harvests across the globe dominate in 2028 then will we see another 1939 moment when the UK government realises the foolhardiness of trusting free markets, free trade and imports for its food supplies?

Volunteers – from vice to virtue

I used to view the amount of self-sown volunteers in a field as a sign of poor combining and crop loss. But now I take a more enlightened view. It’s a state-of-the-art, zero-cost, carbon-neutral, soil-conditioning, wild-life enhancing, nutrient-stabilising, cover crop