‘We’re in the lap of the gods’: UK farmers contend with extreme weather
‘We’re in the lap of the gods’: UK farmers contend with extreme weather

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Six months after the UK experienced its driest February in 30 years, Andrew Blenkiron worried that a lack of rain would threaten crops on the farm he manages in Suffolk, eastern England. Now he has the opposite problem.

About 2,000 of Euston’s 7,000 acres of wheat and barley have been hit by wet weather, with the National Met Office Met Office finding that July was the UK’s sixth wettest month on record.

“The day we took the combine out, it started raining,” Brenkiron said.

This year has been an extreme one so far: February was the second driest month since 1993, while June was the hottest month since records began in 1853. Unseasonably heavy rains were experienced throughout July and the first week of August.

Weather patterns always determine harvest success. But this year, with wheat sitting untouched in storerooms or fields, farmers say mitigating the risks to Britain’s food security from an increasingly unstable climate has become more difficult.

According to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Council (AHDC), just 5% of the UK’s grain had been harvested as of 8 August, well below the five-year average of 36% for this stage of the season. farmer.

High temperatures in early summer meant grains could be harvested earlier than usual, but when they matured, persistent downpours left fields too wet to harvest.

Graph showing cumulative rainfall in millimeters for July-August in the United Kingdom.June was much drier than usual, while July and August were much wetter

If the grain is kept moist, “it starts to soften and the germination process starts”, says Simon Griffiths, a researcher at the John Innis Center Institute of Plant Sciences. This process triggers the breakdown of the starches in the grains into sugars, making them less suitable for making bread.

If the grain quality falls below a certain level, farmers are forced to sell it as animal feed at a much lower price. AHDB figures showed that a tonne of bread wheat cost £248.50 in the first week of August, while a tonne of wheat sold as animal feed cost £187.60.

“If we don’t have quality, we have a lot less value as farmers – it all ends up as animal food,” said Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers Union, which farms in North Essex. ) said.

“Now we’re in the arms of the gods . . . The weather used to be 50 percent of our farm work. Now it’s 80 percent,” he added. “When you look at all the extreme weather we’ve experienced, climate change is happening.”

Harvesting wheat at Euston Manor Farm in Suffolk

Wheat harvesting at Euston Manor Farm in Suffolk after the rain stopped © Si Barber/FT

To prevent deterioration, some farmers rolled out their combine harvesters as soon as the rains stopped and left the soggy crops indoors to dry in hopes of maintaining their quality. If the moisture content is higher than 15% when harvested, the wheat must go through a grain dryer to restore it to a quality sufficient to be processed into flour.

However, the cost of using heaters to dry grain is prohibitively high as they mostly run on gas or diesel, so other farmers insist on more sunlight. Blenkiron opted to introduce grain, which costs £15 per tonne to remove 3% moisture, a process that adds 10% to overall production costs.

According to the UK flour mills industry body, bread produced in the UK contains approximately 80% home-grown flour. The rest mainly came from Germany, Canada and France, which together accounted for 69% of last season’s imports.

But harvests abroad have also been affected this year, with the German Farmers Association reporting that wet weather has forced members to delay grain harvests.

AHDB analyst Helen Plant said while it was too early to tell whether domestic wheat production would be affected, there were concerns over whether enough wheat would be of mill quality.

“If it’s not up to spec, the buyer will penalize you . . . or they may not accept it at all. Then, you need additional shipping costs to move it to another home, like the feed wheat market,” she said.

Andrew Blenkiron inspecting wheat at a grain store
Andrew Blenkiron inspects wheat in his grain store. He paid dearly for drying the soggy grain © Si Barber/FT

Farmers can reduce the risk of a wet crop by choosing a wheat variety whose grains are less likely to germinate before harvest, although no farmer would have considered it during last year’s record heatwave, Griffith said. to this point.

The NFU this week called on the government to boost homegrown food production, citing “recent extreme weather”. It warned ministers against letting the country’s food production-to-supply ratio fall below the current level of 60%.

Agriculture Secretary Mark Spencer said the government recognized “the importance of food security” and was acting to increase production.

“We are committed to maintaining food production at current levels and will continue to support our farmers and food producers as part of our economic growth plan,” he added.

Brenkiron strongly believes that farms should fight climate change and has earmarked 10 percent of the estate’s arable land for solar panels to help curb emissions. But as a result, farms produce less food.

“We need some mechanism to encourage us to grow crops and keep production costs low,” he said. “If we reduce production, then (the UK has to) import a lot of food. That’s the dilemma I’ve been facing.”


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