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Combinable Crops – John Picken
by Andrew Arbuckle
Being a chairman of an NFU Scotland committee is never an easy road to take as there are always difficult issues.
These problems can be increased by weak economics within the sector.
Scottish agriculture is currently going through a period where the old phrase “up horn down corn” is very relevant as it describes the better fortunes of the livestock sector and the poor cereal prices currently available.
As chairman of the Union’s Combinable Crops Committee, John Picken has had to take up the cudgels on behalf of the grain growers who are currently getting returns that in some cases are less than the cost of production.
On a world scale there is reckoned to be a surplus of grain and there is little the Scottish Union can do about that, but on the home front,
John has been campaigning to get a better return for wheat and barley growers in this country.
As a committed cereal grower himself, he has more than a passing interest in this aspect of Union life. Of his 600 acres at Priorletham,
which lies on the south side of St Andrews, there are more than 500 acres down to winter wheat and spring oats.
All of the wheat grown on his farm heads through farm co-operative GrainCo for the local distilling plant at Cameronbridge but because he
has storage capacity on the farm, he normally does not sell at harvest; keeping the crop right through until the summer of the following year.
Or as he puts it “I do not get paid until almost two years after sowing the crop.”
Despite this timescale, he believes in the benefits of working through a farmer owned co-operative. “I believe they give me a better return
through more informed knowledge of the market.”
This year he has four varieties, Alchemy and Islabraq which are both low input, and Cassius and Viscount that require more day to day control
during the growing period. His attitude to preventative spraying for the various diseases that are likely to affect the crop is “it is no different from a doctor prescribing medicines to prevent disease.”
All of the cropping and work on the farm is carried out by himself and one member of staff –David Brown – who has worked on Priorletham for forty years.
The oat crop is grown for the Scotts Porage Oat factory in Cupar, which is now owned by multinational food company Pepsico. This unit now
processes more than 100,000 tonnes of oats annually from growers as far afield as Yorkshire and Aberdeen and a large tonnage of the throughput is then exported to more than thirty countries.
The company has helped set up a group of growers under the banner Oatco with the intention of getting higher quality samples and also to improve growers’ returns. Picken described this was a good example of how producers and large scale purchasers could set up a partnership to help discuss the issues facing the sector.
Oatco are currently looking at varieties that produce higher kernel yields and they are also working with Scottish Agronomy in improving the
field husbandry of this most traditional of all Scottish crops.
His farming enterprises also include a suckler herd of mainly Charolais cross cows, which are put to an Aberdeen Angus bulls. Stores are sold at a year old as he sticks to advice given to him by his father. This was “farmers always pay more than butchers.”
But there is another part of the business which is now taking up more of his time and interest. Along with his wife, Maggie, they have established St Andrews Coach Houses by converting part of the old steading into top quality holiday accommodation.
Only opened two years ago, these lodges have been receiving rave reviews from visitors who appreciate being in the country but also being
close to the historic burgh of St Andrews.
And this brings John back to his work with NFU Scotland. “I believe we will see the Union becoming more broadly based in the future. It is
currently the voice of agriculture but as more and more farmers become involved in tourism and other activities, these will also come under the NFU wing.
He first became involved with Union work when he was persuaded by a neighbour to go along to a local Branch meeting. At that time, Scottish Quality Cereals was being established and as he described it “there was an avalanche of rules and regulations coming along.”
He accepts there are no financial rewards for the work he does for NFUS but believes it helps in other ways. “I enjoy fighting for what I
believe is right and we need the Union to take up the cudgels on our behalf.”
The biggest issue for him just now is getting a better end price for cereals. This is not easy because buyers can easily take control of an
over supplied market. “The trouble is that we are too good at what we do and we produce more than we currently need.”
He has called for grain to be used as a renewable source of fuel but admits that argument is difficult to carry when there are hungry people
in the world. He is however optimistic that the arrival of an ombudsman for the agricultural supply chain can help address the present imbalance in the links in the chain.
"We have the quality product and we have to convince buyers that when they go out onto the world market to buy they do not have that