Avoiding the Short Straw

15 August 2019 - Elizabeth Nichols

With the arable harvest in full swing throughout the East of England early results and yields are being discussed and compared both on farms and in the press. And while grain takes the headlines, according to Ed Nottingham, Agricultural Insurance Specialist there is also a by-product that has seen a real renaissance in recent years – straw.
Back in the day when nearly every farm had livestock to support, straw was a necessity and was in such plentiful supply that it was seen as surplus, indeed it was not so long ago that a straw chopper was permanently fixed to the back of most combines in order to return the unwanted plant back into the soil from which it had been grown
Not so today. Straw is now being baled with care as it has become a valued commodity and this years harvest has served up a swathe feast. Helped by hybrid of crop varieties the volume of straw on the ground has been boosted by 50% in some circumstances and it is no longer the case that any surplus is going to waste.
The situation of a couple of years ago is an all too vivid memory for many farmers, when a poor harvest, followed by a harsh winter left farmers with a shortage of straw, meaning 2018 straw prices rocketed and farmers were forced to bear the cost of buying in stocks. Those relying on straw for their animals cannot afford to be caught short again and now look to keep an excess of straw on their farm each year, as you would expect.
Indeed where a growing season has been so good that an excess of straw can be harvested which is above the needs of the farm, the once worthless by-product is now firmly part of the business plan for many farms who are profiting by selling it on for uses including fuel for power stations, indeed straw has now become as readily traded as the grain.  
Whether the straw harvested will be kept or sold in both situations there is one unavoidable consequence – where to put it? Straw takes up space, invariably space which isn't accounted for and a bit of creativity is often required with straw stacks appearing all over a farm. Whilst the stack on its own is completely inert, it does bring with it a sizeable degree of risk as it is vulnerable to fire – something which should never be overlooked. The size and location of those stacks subsequently has insurance implications to consider.
When looking at the UK insurance market it reveals that many insurers place a limit of between £25,000 and £50,000 on a straw stack. That in itself is a lot of straw, but it is how they define a “stack” which warrants investigation and can lead to complications. One insurer looks upon a “stack” as an accumulation of outdoor stacks less than 20 metres apart, or stacks contained in buildings less than 15 metres apart. Another insurer widens that outdoor distance to 50 metres whilst a third insurer wants the distance between buildings to be at least 20 metres. In all of those scenarios it can be quite confusing for a farmer to adhere to the insurer’s conditions for example classifying a group of stacks as a single stack.
There is however good news in that there are insurers who make no reference to any limits or distance requirements – so there are options available if straw plays a significant part of your business. When considering how to protect and insure your straw crop, getting specialist advice is important in order to ensure you have the right insurance policy in place to cover your straw stocks.  If disaster struck and you were unable to realise its true worth after harvest, being under or incorrectly insured would definitely feel like “drawing the short straw".

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