There has been significant discussion over the past two years regarding the assurance scheme Red Tractor, with some farmers concerned about the standards required of homegrown versus imported cereals.
Joe Brennan recently visited a farm undergoing its annual Red Tractor Crops audit, to see what the inspection actually entails.
I was surprised at how thorough the audit was. This farm produces a lot of milling wheat and other cereals and was spread over a number of different sites with a fair bit of driving to and from each.
Despite this, every grain, fertiliser and agrochemical store was inspected. Inspections didn’t just involve taking a quick look around either, the farmer had to show that the grain stores were vermin-and animal-proof, opening and closing the roller doors to check they fit against the floor and checking the walls and ceiling for any holes.
At one point the auditor measured under the sheet door with his car keys to check if it was snug against the store floor!
All-in-all the audit took around five and a half hours. A big part of this was the record checking, where every record required under the scheme had to be checked, covering things like fertiliser and agrochemical applications, sprayer records etc.
I had wrongly assumed only some of the records would be checked, but everything was gone through line-by-line. I had to ask whether I was seeing a “gold standard” audit by virtue of being there as a processor representative, but was told it is a crucial part of every audit to check every store and every required record.
Whilst the auditor went through the records it gave me an opportunity to speak a bit more to the farmer. Although a supporter of Red Tractor, he was concerned that some grain users were importing cheaper wheat that was held to lower standards, whilst UK farmers had to spend time and money to meet the Red Tractor requirements.
I spoke about the significant sampling and testing that imported wheat is subjected to, covering mycotoxins, agrochemicals, and the costs associated with these, highlighting these tests are not required for homegrown wheat because of the Red Tractor standards. Although we had as an industry made this point before, it was news to the farmer and he remarked at how simply it set out the benefit of the scheme to the grower.
It also serves as a reminder to grain users as to the value of the scheme. Every assured store is thoroughly checked every year. Although audits are announced and there will be the odd rogue operator, the scale of this auditing process is enormous and helps give confidence that the standards of storage and vermin control on UK farms are high.
The extensive records that are checked also give confidence that the appropriate agrochemicals have been applied and good agricultural practice has been followed. No one wants to spend thousands of pounds testing grain for every contaminant under the sun, and the scheme and the auditing that underpins it greatly limits this burden and helps our industry defend the quality of its raw material to customers. A win-win for growers and processors.