UK Crops Dying a Slow Death

The lack of rain is destroying crops, bringing chaos to the farming industry and threatening a steep rise in food prices. Clive Aslet seeks a way out of the crisis

17 May 2011


Add now to the list of countries with Imminent Crop Failure Due to Drought the UK  -- The Lord it seems is withholding rain from the many nations that have forgotten Him. Pleading with them for repentance.

Yesterday, on a train from London to the Midlands, I stared out of the window on to a sorry scene of stunted crops and dusty land. This is England in May, where spring ought to look at its freshest. Instead, as any gardener knows, plants that have not been irrigated have given up on life. Cereal crops have decided that they had better reproduce quickly, as best they can under the circumstances, in case they die. They’ve produced small seeds that are too close together and won’t be sheltered from the sun by the usual leaf.

In Hertfordshire, farmer Robert Law expects the yield from wheat sown over winter to be down by 40 per cent. Cereals sown this spring have been practically wiped out. “In an average year, we would have 130ml of rainfall,” he sighs. “This year, we’ve had 7ml.” There isn’t the water to irrigate cereal crops, and it wouldn’t be cost-efficient for him if there were, given the prices the crops fetch.

Usually, only high-value crops such as sugar beet and vegetables receive irrigation; this year, the sprayer booms have been turned on. Even so, as Tim Pratt, farm manager of Wantisden Hall Farms in Suffolk, explains, there is a cost: he has had to employ more labour to do it. Fortunately, reserves of water in and under the ground were topped up in winter. Even so, Richard Scott, chairman of the Suffolk National Farmers Union, speaks of farmers enduring some of the toughest conditions for decades.

“It’s the subject that preoccupies my every waking moment,” laments Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association. Organic farmers tend to plant more of the spring-sown crops which, not having established their root systems, have been decimated. “The dust is unbelievable. It’s a complete nightmare.”

The drought has come just as the nation has been putting the memories of the big Christmas freeze behind it, although – to add insult to injury – my hosts in Derbyshire experienced frost earlier this week. The normal routine of the countryside has gone out of the window, as it seems to have developed the habit of doing in recent years.

Clive Newington runs a mixed farm in Sussex, and he speaks to me from his tractor cab. “The drought is starting to bite,” he says. “Wheat is coming into ear about 10 days too early, on straw that is nine inches too short. The malting barley is looking so stressed – there has been no growth.”

One of the consequences of stunted crops is a shortage of straw. After last year’s baking July, some farmers simply ploughed their under-performing crops back into the ground, rather than spend the money on harvesting them. As a result, livestock farmers found that there was a shortage of bedding, and had to pay a high price for it. Straw could be even more difficult to buy this year.

Mr Newington expects to make bedding from the remains of the stalks of beans and oil seed rape; usually, this “crop residue” would be ploughed into the ground to improve fertility. Not doing so will have a deleterious effect that might be noticed for two or three years.

Mr Newington, though, is relatively fortunate. On his mixed farm, he has the option of diverting some grain into animal feed. On a pure dairy or beef unit, this isn’t possible. Farmers rely on the sappy spring grass – richer in nutrients than grass in the summer – to build up their animals after winter. They will want to conserve some of it as hay or silage to use when the cattle are back in their barns.

This year, the grass hasn’t performed. Meadows that should be knee-high at this season barely tickle your ankles. Cattle are being moved on to fields that had been earmarked for silage. And the weather has made it difficult to spread fertiliser, which needs rain to take it into the ground. The cost of fertiliser, being energy-intensive to make, follows the oil price, so is now at a high.

Pity the farmer who has fertilised his pastures in expectation of rain to find the effort has been worthless. Whereas barley barons have benefited from the boom in world wheat prices, livestock farmers have had to pay more for their feed. Parched fields mean they will have to buy in more feed than they’d like.

“I listen to the radio,” says the food campaigner Caroline Cranbrook, based in Suffolk, “and they talk about sunny weekends, as though the world were composed only of city dwellers. The countryside is facing a crisis.” It is a crisis that will land, inevitably, on the city dweller’s food plate, in the form of inflated prices.

The Government should keep its eye on the supermarkets. In the past, they have used rises in commodity costs to push up the cost of food, even when the raw ingredient may only account for a small percentage of the cost of the finished product. They should also encourage consumers to overcome their finickiness about the appearance of food. Potatoes are likely to be scabby – marked with harmless spots – because of the dry weather; supermarkets will reject them on aesthetic grounds, although they are perfectly good to eat. The same goes for carrots, which might not grow evenly in drought conditions.

Not everything is doing badly. As anyone who travelled around Britain earlier in the spring will have noticed, this has been a spectacular year for blossom. So expect apples, pears and plums to do well. English strawberries have arrived early, and modern techniques of horticulture mean that supplies should last.

Therese Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal, last week badgered the Prime Minister about water in the House of Commons. “Our local farmers are used to dry conditions but spray irrigation has started much earlier than usual. The worry locally is that access to aquifers could be limited and we need government agencies to be flexible. The risk is that yields will fall and food prices increase, so it is in all our interests to help our farmers.”

But this would only be a short-term fix. What is needed, given that we are already living beyond our water means, is a long-term strategy for drought. Britain is using more water for more purposes – dishwashers where our parents might have used a sponge, power showers where our grandparents might have heated a modest cubic volume on the back boiler of their kitchen range.

Farmers are not blame-free in this respect. Since the 17th century, field drainage has been one of the prerequisites of efficient agriculture. Water is hurried from the land into rivers, then shot out into the sea. With our generally wet climate, we’ve asked engineers to get rid of water from roads and cities, and they’ve taken us at our word. We squandered the rainwater that we generally have in abundance. Less of it soaks back into the aquifers; too little of it is stored.

Farmers should be encouraged to build reservoirs. At present, almost every pond is regulated as though it were a reservoir supplying Birmingham. We should reconnect with the wisdom of our ancestors, for whom muck and compost were some of the only ways to improve soil fertility.

On this one, the Prince of Wales is right: if more organic matter were returned to the soil, it would retain more water. But there is one respect in which he is wrong. One huge benefit to the world of GM crops is their ability to survive droughts and flourish on less water. Not only are such crops not licensed in this country, but the mood is so hostile that research now takes places overseas. That makes it less likely that new crops suitable for British conditions will be developed. The farms minister Jim Paice can do a rain dance if he likes. A better solution would be found in GM.