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Digital Re-print November | December 2013

Market-aware farming: commodities training at Writtle College

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Market-aware farming:
raditionally farmers are poor at marketing, being predominantly concerned with producing the crop to the best of their ability within the constraints of soil type, climate and utilisation of inputs. Beyond the farm gate was of little concern. This approach was encouraged by a subsidy system put in place at first in the UK after the Second World War though the Agriculture Act of 1947, and then by the European Union through the CAP after Britain joined the Common Market in 1973. Systems of price support, grants and tax relief were all put in place to increase production and, with the emphasis on yield and producing more, the market was guaranteed. Husbandry improved as fertiliser use increased, varieties were improved and fungicides and pesticides were developed to enable crops to fulfil their potential. Farmers were very successful and yields doubled from their 1960 level. However, by the early 1990s concerns over the environmental impact of the system, the existence of grain mountains and the increasing cost of the policy led to a reappraisal, and the result of this was the set-aside policy through the McSharry reforms of 1992. The biggest shift in policy then came with the introduction of the Single Farm Payment Scheme in 2003. Under this regime agricultural support was no longer linked to production but to the land. Farmers received a payment for the land they farmed, not what they produced, requiring a different mindset and approach to their businesses. No longer was it sufficient to produce crops and think about where to sell them afterwards. Farmers instead had to consider the market and adjust management and agronomy according to the requirements of the market. In practice, cropping has changed little but farmers now are now aware and have to be of commodity prices and events in
30 | November - December 2013

commodities training at Writtle College

by Henry Matthews, Seniour Lecturer in Agriculture, Writtle College, UK

Case study

Business view, W & H Marriage & Sons

W & H Marriage, a flour and feed miller founded in 1824 and situated close to Writtle College in Chelmsford, has always believed in sourcing cereals from local farmers and building relationships with them. This has ensured that over the years both have benefited from the certainty of knowing that what is being grown has an ultimate market destination. The importance of meeting the right specifications for the right market is crucial for the success of both farmer and miller. For example, Marriages supply a wide range of specific flours to the leading artisan bakers and this requires excellent and above all reliable performance from wheat and flour. As with all businesses which have a long history, the company has had to adapt and evolve to meet changing markets. The recent acquisition of a pet

food company has diversified the animal feed part of the business while Marriages has continued to offer bespoke rations for specific species from free-range turkeys to parakeets. Family member James Marriage, currently responsible for managing farm livestock feed accounts, is keen to maintain the close link between the company and local farmers that both supply raw materials and consume feed. James says that this will help maintain the standard of quality assurance and good service required to thrive within niche areas of the market. He welcomes the introduction of this module at Writtle College and the way it highlights this important link. Marriages currently employs several former students of the College and hosts student visits to reinforce the message of quality for markets and to demonstrate how the checks are carried out on grain arriving at the mill. The company has also supplied the College farm with animal feed for the pig and turkey enterprises.


FEATURE FEATURE bally is handled in bulk, a significant proportion still needs to be packaged and therefore requires packaging that is fit for purpose. Grain and grain product spoilage factors can be grouped into three main categories: Physical losses caused by spillages, which occur due to the use of faulty or underspecified packaging materials Physiological losses including moisture absorption, heating and respiration due to exposure to high humidity, temperature and oxygen, as well as physical taint and taint from odours Biological losses due to micro-organisms, insects and rodents The basic functions of any packaging for cereal and cereal products include: Containment to protect the contents from spillage Protection against external environmental conditions such as humidity Protection from insect infestation and pests Protection from external odour and taint Ability to withstand mechanical hazards during transportation Ease of handling and stacking to optimise the use of available space In addition, the packaging should be economical and may be required to help promote brand awareness through the addition of graphic designs and printing processes. Figure 1: Potential environmental impacts of underpackaging and over-packaging

Over recent decades, developments in grain and feed packaging have gone a long way towards fulfilling these functions. We have seen advances in materials from sacks made from traditional jute and natural fibres, multiwall paper, high density woven polyethylene or polypropylene sacks, to packaging made from advanced polymers which have allowed down-gauging (reducing the amount of material used) and weight reduction of materials while maintaining equivalent package strength.

Environmental factors as drivers for development

The main drivers for these developments have generally been cost reductions

and performance improvements of materials and sealing systems, which have advanced alongside the development of high-speed filling lines. Major cost reductions have also been achieved through the use of efficient packaging, which has helped to reduce product spoilage and wastage during distribution and storage. However, in recent years an additional and growing set of drivers have emerged which may influence the choice of packaging. These drivers are the environmental concerns surrounding packaging in all production sectors. Environmental issues have now become drivers in their own right, due to increased regulation, greater public awareness, and an increased recognition from


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FEATURE Assurance and Markets, which runs alongside an Introduction to Agronomy and Cropping Systems, with the purpose of teaching students about the world market, the requirements and quality issues associated with each crop. During the year, the main crops covered include wheat, rape, barley, oats, beans, peas, potatoes and sugar beet as well as speciality crops such as borage, sunflower and soya. In the same week that students learn about the agronomy of a crop, they are taught and given insights into the local, European and world markets for that crop. As part of this, market requirements and standards are discussed as well as how these might be achieved by good agronomic practice such as appropriate variety choice and targeted use of pesticides and fertiliser. The delivery of the module combines the traditional lecture/seminar approach with visits and external speakers. The College has good links with the local miller, W.H Marriage and Sons, and two graduates are among the staff employed there. Students also visit Clarksons at Ipswich Docks, a major importer and exporter of agricultural commodities. The module is taught by three Writtle College staff, both with academic and practical agricultural backgrounds. Dr Chris Bishop is an authority on post-harvest technology and consults around the world on storage and processing on a variety of agricultural and horticultural products. The Writtle postharvest unit has a national and international reputation for its work with both NGOs and commercial companies in the areas of storage, and the maintenance of crop quality between the producer and the consumer. Work has also been carried out on behalf of UK supermarkets on shelf life and packaging of fruit and vegetables. Dr Clive Beale, also part of the post-harvest team, lectures on the quality of cereals using his scientific background and commercial experience, while Henry Matthews, the module leader, has practical farming experience in the UK and Eastern Europe. Students are partly assessed on a presentation on a crop market of their choice. They are expected to be able to articulate the main requirements of the market for the crop of their choice and to be able to suggest strategies which might enable this to be achieved. While the popular choices are wheat and rape, other crops such as poppies and palm oil have been chosen. The key to giving students the skills they need to be attractive employees in the agriculture industry is flexing the curriculum according to the sectors needs. Writtle College has been proficient in reflecting the changes in the agriculture industry for decades indeed our stand at Cereals 2013 celebrating our 120th anniversary was visited by alumni who are now among the leaders in the agricultural economy and we intend to continue this over the coming years to keep pace with this ever-changing industry.

Case study

A students experience Leanne Eyre BSc (Hons), Agriculture

I came to Writtle College with a basic level of agricultural knowledge. I now work in assurance, but I could not have got there without the guidance, dedication and knowledge from my lecturers at Writtle College. I studied a BSc Honours degree in Agriculture and it covered livestock, arable and agribusiness aspects. I learnt what quality agriculture really is and what goes into farming in today's world. I now use my knowledge every single day in my job. I learnt that a quality crop is not only about the physical product at the end of the process, but is also about everything that went into producing that product from the beginning. For my job I need to know about seed, environment management, chemical control, competency, harvesting, storage, vermin control, machinery, traceability, haulage and legislation. At Writtle College, I learnt about all of these. I was taught the whole system, beginning with preparation, harvest and storage, to the marketing and selling of grain. I learnt about a variety of crops including cereals, sugar beet, fodder beet, potatoes, OSR, linseed, beans, peas and many other crops from the UK and abroad. I learnt about what makes a good quality crop and how to measure this. This included learning about critical timings and

growth stages, cultivations and machinery choice, soil and nutrient management; both natural and artificial fertilisers, disease and pest management; insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. I learnt about looking after the environment including water, soil and air quality. It also included learning about integrated crop management (ICM) and entry-level/higher-level stewardship (ELS/HLS) schemes and good agricultural practices. I was taught that a quality crop can be measured in many ways. I remember from college learning that the quality is set by the end market, so its important to meet your specific market targets to get the level of quality that they want an aspect one person regards as a measure of quality, others may not regard so highly. I spent many hours learning about the measures of quality for different crops, for example milling wheat and Hagberg falling numbers and Thousand Grain Weights. Other crops have other points that determine quality, for example, sugar or oil contents, digestibility levels for fodder, potential seed quality and so much more its amazing it all sunk in! Writtle promoted a very hands-on approach and I remember spending time in fields walking crops, digging soil pits and making my own weed guide. I also went on many trips to see real life situations and studied different systems, learning as I went about how important it is to find your own niche in the market and about the many ways to make your crops achieve a higher quality so as to receive a positive differential to other producers.

other parts of the world. Where previously a farmer would be interested in what was happening in the next parish he now is aware of the problems surrounding the maize harvest in the US, wheat plantings in Australia and the prospects for the soya crop in Argentina. Writtle College in Essex was established
32 | November - December 2013

in 1893 to meet the training needs of local farmers something it has continued to do throughout its 120-year history. The change in policy brought about a change in the curriculum taught to undergraduates. A new module was introduced for those studying crop production called Quality


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Market-aware farming:
commodities training at Writtle College

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