HL Deb 22 March 1949 vol 161 cc592-8

5.12 p.m.

LORD CARRINGTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to provide adequate accommodation for the storage of grain. The noble Lord said: My Lords, before I ask the Question which stands in my name, I should like to make one or two suggestions to the noble Earl who is to reply, and also to get from the Government a statement as to whether or not they take any responsibility for the storage of grain or have any intention of helping the farmer in providing storage for grain. At the moment I do not know. I hope that if the Government have come to a decision they will have borne in mind two factors: first of all, the seriousness of the problem created with the great increase in the number of combines in use throughout the country, with the result that a good deal more grain than before is being threshed at harvest time and some place has to be found to store it. Last year there were in use in the country 6,400 combine harvesters. It is estimated that the year after next there will be over 11,000, so your Lordships will see that the problem is becoming more acute, and I think that the Government as well as the farmer have an interest in ensuring that the grain is adequately stored. Secondly, as the result of the maintenance of tillage directions and the encouragement given by the Government to farmers to grow cereals, many farmers are cropping their land in a way which they hope will not continue indefinitely, and it would be a mistake to ask those farmers to spend a good deal of money on putting up storage accommodation for a purpose which they hope will not continue for long.

The right place to store grain is on the farm, rather than that the Ministry of Food or some other ministerial Department should take it over at harvest time. Indeed, many farmers would be unwilling to sell their grain to the Ministry of Food at harvest time. It will also save both labour and transport if the grain can be stored where it is threshed and can go from there straight to the miller. With this in view, I should like to make one or two suggestions to the noble Earl. First, would it not be possible for the Government to include in the Agricultural (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill some provision whereby either an individual farmer or a farmers' co-operative society could get either a loan or a grant, or a combination of both, which would enable them to put up some sort of storage barn or shed? Perhaps it would be possible to do this rather on the lines that are already in the Bill with regard to grass dryers. I realise, of course, that this would be a long-term policy, because licences, men and material will take some time to obtain and, indeed, it would probably not be economical for smaller farmers to build these stores.

Therefore, my second suggestion is with regard to the short-term policy. Could not the Government, or the Ministry of Agriculture in particular, either erect new buildings or requisition old buildings which would be suitable for the storage of grain and let those buildings direct, either to individual farmers or to farmer co-operatives, to store their grain? In my own county, and I have no doubt in many others, there are a good many airfields with excellent hangars and other buildings which, with a little conversion, could be used for this purpose. My third suggestion is that I hope the noble Earl and the Ministry of Agriculture will see that the National Agricultural Advisory Service is used to the full in giving advice to farmers in regard to this problem. Also, I hope it might be possible for the Farm Buildings Advisory Service to prepare a simple and a flexible plan for a shed or store which could be adapted to suit almost every circumstance. Lastly, I would ask the noble Earl whether he has any statement to make on the results of the deputation from the National Farmers' Union which went to him on this subject in January. I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name.

5.18 p.m.


My Lords, the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, with regard to the storage of grain is an extremely complicated one. As the noble Lord will know, all imported grain has to be stored, and at present we have to hold much larger stocks of grain than ever we held before the war. By far the greater bulk of grain storage is in private hands. It consists of the big silos of the millers and of the maltsters, and of the big silos at the ports. They hold the large proportion of all our stocks of grain at the moment. But in addition to these privately owned silos, there are, of course, the Ministry of Food silos, sixteen in number, which hold about 5,000 tons each. These are equipped with the latest machinery for drying grain, and they dry at the rate of about ten tons an hour. In addition, there are what are called "buffer depots" all over the country, to which the dried grain can be sent if necessary. It has been found up to date that the storage capacity of the privately-owned storages and of the Ministry of Food silos and depôts has been sufficient to take in all the grain that has come forward.

But the particular point which is obviously of concern to the noble Lord is that of the combined grain—the fact that we have so many combines in the agricultural field bringing more grain into hand at one particular moment for sale or to be stored. That is the big problem. But I think we must keep a sense of proportion in regard to this matter, because the bulk of the grain is still stored in stacks and will continue to be so stored. I should like to quote one or two figures to illustrate this point. In 1948, about 8,000,000 tons of grain of all kinds—wheat, barley, oats, rye and mixed corn—were produced in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that rather more than 1,000,000 tons were harvested by combines. By 1952, we expect, in view of the agricultural expansion programme, that about 8,500,000 tons—that is assuming normal yields—will be harvested, of which about 1,750,000 tons may be cut by combines. Therefore, the real problem which we have to consider is how this additional 750,000 tons can be handled.

As noble Lords will realise, it is impossible to estimate these things exactly. The harvests, the weather, and a hundred other different factors all come into play, and may increase or decrease the amount of grain on hand. Although the point that combines bring in more threshed grain at one particular moment is of great importance, there are on the other hand counter factors to be considered. Farmers are now allowed to keep as much oats and barley as they wish to use for feeding their livestock. They are also allowed to keep 25 per cent. of their wheat. This will be a very strong inducement to them to keep grain, or a certain amount of it, on the farm. Further, we have a scale of prices which encourages the farmer to retain his grain for a while—the longer he keeps it, the more he is likely to get for it. I agree with the noble Lord that it would be most advisable for farmers to consider installing additional storage facilities on their own premises—whatever units they may choose. To put it another way, this is fundamentally a problem for the farmers and the trade. The Government storage can take only a certain proportion of the total amount of grain, and it cannot cope with the big increase that is envisaged. So this is a matter upon which the trade and the farmers should get together, with a view to working out a solution of the problem.

I do not wish to give the impression, from anything I have said, that His Majesty's Government are not extremely interested and deeply concerned about the matter. They certainly are. Indeed, they have been worried over this problem for a considerable time, and they have under consideration plans for an extension of the storage and drying facilities provided at the national silos. However, it is unlikely that the present capacity of the silos, 80,000 tons, will be increased by more than 10,000 tons by the 1950 harvest. A number of details have yet to be settled before a final decision in this matter can be taken—such as, for example, the most economical size of unit, and the best places in which to install the units. There will have to be conversations with the farming and commercial interests to see that our plans dovetail in with theirs. That much is in hand, but I would point out that this extension to the existing national silo system is intended only to supplement Government facilities for storage, and it should not prevent people going ahead with their own plans for storing grain—whether those concerned are farmers or business people in the trade.

I would like now to refer to one or two ideas which I think may prove helpful. We have found that well-ventilated bins will keep grain for about two to three months, provided that the grain is combined at the right time, and I can assure the noble Lord who raised this question that the fullest advice on this point will be given to farmers by the National Agricultural Advisory Service. Farmers will, in fact, receive all the help that the Government can give in connection with the general problem. The question as to the possibility of a grant being given for putting up sheds is clearly one which will have to be considered. I cannot give any answer on that matter now.

As to the designing of special buildings, that is certainly a very interesting idea, which will also have to be considered. Whether we shall do anything about it or not I cannot say at the moment, but I must admit that I am not very hopeful on that particular subject. But as I have indicated, His Majesty's Government are deeply interested in the whole matter. I would like to point out that the Ministry of Food are fully prepared to sponsor any reasonable requests from the trade—that is, from maltsters, millers or others—for building additional storage spaces, while any reasonable request by farmers or on the part of buyers will be given most sympathetic consideration by my own Department. In conclusion, I should like to say that I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, raised this question. It is a matter of the keenest interest to us. As I have said, however, I think that the real onus lies with the farmers and the trade to supply the answer to this problem.

5.26 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all greatly indebted to the noble Earl for the full reply which he has given to this question. It is a reply which will be of great value to farmers and others throughout the country. He has said that the Government have been worried over this matter for some time, and I recall that it gave me a certain amount of anxiety when I was Minister of Food. At that time, we were importing a lot of combine harvesters from the United States, and it was clear to us that more and more grain was liable to be thrown on the market all at one time. That sort of thing never happened, of course, when the old traction engine had to go round to assist in dealing with the harvest. It could move at only a certain pace from one farm to another, and we found that its very mechanical shortcomings helped to keep our flow of supplies of grain running steadily.

I am glad that the noble Earl has come down in favour of the view that it is much better for quantities of this grain, if possible, to be stored on the farms. I agree completely with that view, and, if I may say so, I agree with it not only on the grounds which he has stated but on security grounds as well. We shall have a system of dispersed storage of grain supplies if substantial quantities are kept on farms instead of being concentrated in silos at big ports or places of that sort. From that point of view, therefore, it is far better that considerable quantities of grain should be stored on the farms. I hope the Minister will look into the suggestion—perhaps he will do so before the Bill comes to us—as to whether provision for loans for this purpose cannot be included in the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It seems to me equally important, also, as regards the encouragement of grass dryers. I know that I vice the general opinion of your Lordships when I say that we thank the noble Earl very much for the full reply which he has given.