Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade : Plant Dyes and Pigments in World Commerce and Art

By Robert Chenciner | Go to book overview

6

The farmer's rewards,banks & bankruptcy

The farmer & the accountant

EVERY AUTHOR who has written about madder became convinced that it was one of the most profitable crops known. The variety of calculations set out below may have more relevance to agricultural and social conditions than financial disciplines. The accounts bear witness to the popularity and ingenuity of different methods used in the Caucasus, France, Holland and England. Most methods separate cultivation from the heavy capital requirements of the drying, crushing and grinding processes. Paul Rix, of Deloitte & Touche's agricultural accountancy division, appropriately based in Cambridge, kindly sent me a modern bench-marking method for a parallel crop-asparagus-which has a 12-year life. The problem is to assess crop efficiency in terms of both return per acre and return on capital.

But the available information is incomplete. While the calculations enable one to admire the size of surplus, they all leave out a formal balance sheet, listing fixed assets, current assets, short-term liabilities and borrowings, and long-term loans. The price of land is irregularly mentioned, as is the rent and the tithe, a fixed tax on production rather than consumption. The farmer and his family's work are also thrown in at a notional zero worth. So, it is often not possible to convert a surplus figure, which is a sort of gross profit margin, into a directly comparable net profit. Double entry bookkeeping may have been invented by the ancient Romans, but highly profitable businesses were reticent about publishing full accounts until this century.

Rix also showed how start-up expenses for asparagus are split up or amortised into 12 equal charges over the 12 years of the crop. While this is correct and fair, the madder grower was most concerned with cash flow or rather the lack of it. He had to take the start-up costs on the nose, as the money was spent, and there was no direct income from the roots for two or three years, until extraction. Some intermediate income could be generated by selling slips, seeds and rotational crops or other crops planted between individual madder plants.

-107-

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