February brought with it the arrival of wintry conditions at Southesk, with two weeks of frost including five days of night-time temperatures below -7degC.
On one hand, the cold snap was welcomed as it undoubtedly helped deal with some of the mildew that had been enjoying the mild winter. On the other hand, it only served to make the pigeons hungrier, with the daily battle to keep them off oilseed rape crops taking up huge amounts of time.
Luckily for us, we do not tend to get many complaints about gas bangers which is just as well as I have them littered all over the place, along with daily rope bangers, numerous kites and fairly tired looking fertiliser bags stapled to fence posts.
I am well aware that, compared to fellow growers further south, we are fortunate not to have flea beetle issues. However, if I allocated an annual pigeon control cost to my rape crops, I am sure I would get a fright.
Another downside to the frost was that we had 10 days when we could not get the ploughs in the ground and, when things did start to warm up, 10 millimetres of rain only served to make the thawing ground a no-go area.
To further exacerbate issues, we recently had an excellent member of staff leave to return to the oil industry, having only been with us a year.
Good operators are like hens’ teeth in this area, made worse by the lure of big wages working offshore. However, I took a chance a year ago and regrettably it has not paid off.
We wish him well however, as he was a tremendous asset for the short time he was here. We will promote from within our team on this occasion which, although it will take time in terms of training, will hopefully benefit in the long term rather than going through an expensive recruitment campaign to potentially achieve nothing.
The employee who will take on the vacant role first came to Southesk from Romania as a fruit picker in 2009 and, over the years, by showing willing, has steadily increased his responsibility over both the fruit and arable enterprises and I have every confidence he will become a top-class arable operator in the years to come.
With progress halted due to the weather, we have put the finishing touches to our capital works for the Agri-Environment and Climate Scheme (AECS), with the claims now submitted to the department. The last job was to display signs around the farm showing the European flag, which seems a bit ironic considering what is around the corner.
Last year was a busy one due to the increased workload the AECS options created, but we now have more grass margins, species rich grass, stock fencing, gates, water troughs, bridges, wild bird seeds, overwintered stubbles, a biobed, bunded sprayer filling area, a restored pond and more gorse cleared on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
I am hopeful that 2019 will be slightly quieter, as the focus needs to shift back slightly to our core business of arable and soft fruit production now that the AECS options are in place.
However, we are still looking to increase our renewable energy commitments at the same time, through solar energy and ground source heat extraction, to secure both Feed-In Tariffs (FITs) and the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).
My view of farming in the short term, post Brexit, is fairly pessimistic so through annual AECS, FITS and RHI payments we are looking to secure a level of income on par with our annual basic payment which we know will be reduced in the years ahead.
We are all being told to plan for Brexit (easier said than done when the politicians cannot) and investment in non-farming income is our chosen route, hopefully backed up by profitable arable and fruit enterprises. Only time will tell.