Farmers fight to save stunted crops in record UK heat

Edward Lindley’s main potato crop of the year is withering. The leaves falling off the plants on his 1,500-acre east Yorkshire farm are just one sign of a crop stunted by the UK’s record-breaking heat; he expects a drop in his yields of at least a quarter.

“When a potato crop sits in this kind of heat it just shuts down. It will not grow,” he says. Referring to a commonly used weedkiller, he adds: “You walk in and think, it looks like someone’s put Roundup on it.”

Yet Lindley considers himself one of the lucky ones. While his potatoes are suffering, he is still allowed to secure water for the crop through a borehole on his farm in northern England. He estimates most other potato farmers could suffer a drop in yield of at least 40 per cent.

Many of his neighbours and other vegetable growers around the country have hit the limits of the water the Environment Agency will allow them to use in the UK’s driest summer for half a century, pushing them from a difficult situation into crisis. On Friday, the agency declared a drought across south, central and eastern England.

The heat and water scarcity have compounded the struggles of a sector already grappling with a range of post-Brexit issues and dramatic cost rises. The Andersons Centre, a farming consultancy, estimated that agricultural input costs rose 23.5 per cent year-on-year in July.

“Barring a plague of locusts, I don’t think we could have had a worse five years,” Lindley said.

Farmers are accustomed to operating at the mercy of the weather. But recent extremes have strained their business models and offered an unpleasant taste of the future as food production is increasingly affected by climate change, said Joe Stanley, a mixed farmer in Leicestershire and author of Farm to Fork: The Challenge of Sustainable Farming in 21st Century Britain.

“In the UK we rely on our temperate, maritime climate for the way that we produce our food . . . but since 2017 we have had extremes every single year which have had a huge impact on my farm’s ability to produce food,” he said.

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The east and south of England, including key growing areas such as Lincolnshire, have been especially hot and dry in 2022, and vegetable growers, who rely on irrigation, are facing some of the most acute problems.

Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, said water shortages for growers were cutting into yields, in some cases stunting vegetables below the size that supermarkets will accept.

“One retailer turned down 60 acres of cauliflowers because they did not meet its specifications. The crop had to be ploughed in,” he said, adding that farmers were asking retailers to relax size requirements.

McCain, the UK’s largest buyer of potatoes, said the effects of climate change were “all too real” for its growers. Early crops this year performed well, but “many of the later crops are under severe stress — and the next few weeks will be critical”, said James Young, a vice-president at the multinational frozen food company.

Meanwhile, Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, said crops being planted now, such as brassicas, are battling arid soils.

“We now have to contend with the fact that we are trying to put very small, young plants into parched soils. And that’s what we are relying on to eat in the winter. We are effectively putting them into dust,” he said.

Dairy and livestock farmers are also enduring hardship after the grass their animals graze dried up. “I was walking across our fields and it was crunching under my feet. It’s bone dry,” said Ruth Grice, a dairy farmer in Leicestershire.

Ruth Grice on her farm surrounded by cattle
Ruth Grice has seen milk yields drop by 7% as her cows react to the heat © Cameron Smith/FT

Grice is feeding her cattle silage intended for the winter, even as the weather stunts the crops that would normally help to build up the farm’s stock of winter feed.

Grice’s milk yields have dropped by about 7 per cent as her animals react to the heat, but the bigger concern is the risk of feed shortages later in the year, which could pit farmers against one another in buying feed at already high prices.

“There will be farmers out there when it comes to winter that will have to make more drastic decisions in terms of herd size, putting animals into the beef food chain instead of staying in dairy,” Grice said.

Arable crops may be harvested earlier this year, with lower drying costs, but also face lower yields, said Mark Tufnell, president of the Country Land and Business Association. One of the more affected crops is oilseed rape, which is badly needed to help with cooking oil shortages resulting from the Ukraine war.

The NFU has called for a more flexible approach to the rules that govern water that farmers can source under so-called abstraction licences, which enable them to take water from rivers, streams, drains and boreholes.

Jerry Knox, professor of agricultural water management at Cranfield University, said this would allow farmers to “take water during periods of high river flow for storage and use [it] later”, adding: “This will facilitate water sharing and reduce summer pressure on water supplies.”

For the longer term, farmers can now apply for grants to fund construction of on-farm reservoirs. They are also adopting a range of tactics to strengthen soils, enabling the earth to hold more water, said Stanley, such as switching from rye grass to mixed herbal leys with a deeper root structure.

The parched grass on Ruth Grice’s dairy farm in Leicestershire
The parched grass on Ruth Grice’s dairy farm in Leicestershire © Cameron Smith/FT

But on a much larger scale, farming groups want ministers to develop a national water strategy to ensure that surplus water can be stored in the wetter months and that the UK prepares at a national level for a water-scarce future.

The Environment Agency warned last month that some rivers could have 50 to 80 per cent less water in summer by 2050 with temperatures 7.4C higher.

Minette Batters, NFU president, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday that managing water as a national resource was imperative, as it was abundant in some parts of the country and not in others. “We’ve got to be able to move water, we’ve got to be able to pay farmers to store water, and we’ve got to stop wasting millions of gallons of water into the North Sea.”

The government said it was receiving regular updates “about impacts on the farming sector”. It said it had offered some flexibility on water abstraction, providing £10mn for water management and given advice.

Stanley urged the government, which he said was distracted by the ongoing Conservative leadership race, to draw up a national water strategy as a priority. He said this would help ensure food security — a key concern among farmers worried that more production will move overseas in the wake of Brexit.

Against this backdrop, however, Stanley said climate change was a key determinant of farmers’ fortunes. “Leaving the EU was a huge shock to the industry, but climate change to this point really has [had] the biggest impact on farm profitability.”

Additional reporting by Camilla Hodgson

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