Red, green, yellow – take your pick – the combine harvester is an iconic feature of our rural summers from ‘Yorkshire Show’ week to around the middle of September.
These agricultural behemoths are a favourite with children who will stop, gaze and maybe even give us a wave. To others they are more of a temporary inconvenience on the roads. But I would ask people to reflect on how important combines are in our national harvest and farming’s contribution to everyday life.
Before harvest, the combine will be serviced and given a good clean before emerging from its shed – a moment that marks the culmination of a season’s work for the farmer tending their crops. In short, it’s a big deal. My 81-year-old father still gets excited, anxious (and expectant) as the first crop begins to ripen.
Combines collect the seeds of many crops, including pulses like peas and beans, oilseeds such as linseed or oilseed rape, and of course the cereals: rye, oats, barley, and wheat. These form the backbone of our nation’s larder. I think it’s safe to say we all consume something that has been harvested with a combine every day. Maybe even in every meal.
They go into flour for bread and baking, which has proved very popular during lockdown, and biscuits (imagine a cup of tea without one) as well as most breakfast cereals, along with oats for porridge.
And then there’s barley, the malt from which adds flavour to so many products and provides the key ingredient for the nation’s favourite drinks – our beers and whiskies.
Many cereals and the ‘leftovers’ from brewing or flour production are used to feed our livestock. They help fuel our chickens, which provide us with high-protein meat and eggs, the dairy cows producing our milk, butter, yoghurts and cheese, as well as our beef cattle and pigs.
Harvest always brings a feeling of excitement, but there is no doubting most farms will experience a rather different harvest this year, and probably a much less lucrative one.
In Yorkshire, the planting statistics reflect an incredibly wet autumn and winter, with the severe flooding preventing many farmers from sowing winter crops. Winter wheat plantings were down 32 per cent and winter barley plantings down by 37 per cent.
Instead, many growers shifted to spring crops, with the area of spring barley sown in region up by 45 per cent. Yet the weather had the last laugh here too, with that lovely hot, dry spell during lockdown devastating spring barleys as they tried to establish themselves.
The situation on our farm in Kelfield has been no different and reflects many of the challenges across the region and the rest of the UK, but there’s still something exciting about the start of harvest.
Historically, harvest is a time that brings the farmer and the public together in a time of celebration. While the combines mean we no longer need a whole village to help bring in the crops, farmers still want to celebrate with our non-farming neighbours, the people who will enjoy the benefits of a successful harvest.
That is what the NFU’s #YourHarvest campaign aims to do – to bring people together in a shared understanding of the importance of harvest and the significant contribution of the British arable sector to the nation.
One element of this contribution that is not always fully recognised is the work arable farmers do to care for the environment. Our farmers’ attention to detail is second to none when managing the many habitats and wildlife areas on farms – and those abound in Yorkshire.
With many farms still closed to the public due to Covid-19, this year we’re taking to social media and we invite the public to join us by following the hashtag #YourHarvest.
For me, I’ll be showcasing how we encourage and support our wildlife. We keep seven per cent of our farm as permanently managed habitat, and this rises to around 25 per cent for six months of the year. Not to mention the work we do alongside food production to protect our country’s most important asset – its soils.
The British summertime is a hive of colour and activity, and our combines are at the centre of it all as they work to bring the country’s harvest in. Do give us a wave if you see us passing by and try and be patient if we’re slowing you down on the roads as we move between fields.
Richard Bramley is vice chair of the NFU’s North East regional crops board.
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