One retired farmer who’s now eighty, called this year’s grain harvest in the Marlborough area ‘the weirdest ever’. His son was restrained enough to talk of ‘pretty exceptional times’. A farmer to the east of Marlborough called the harvest ‘simply terrible’. Another farmer described it as a costly ‘stop-go’ harvest.
To find out what’s gone wrong, I visited two very different farms: a farmer at Wilton, David Lemon, and a farmer near Mildenhall, James Sheppard. And I discovered that it’s not just their own crops that are worrying farmers – in a globalised market for grain, a perfect storm has hit them and may well soon hit the rest of us too in the stark form of rising food prices.
The United States has suffered a terrible drought and much of the corn has been lost. It’s been too hot and too dry in Russia and parts of eastern Europe. And it was so cold in France and Germany that their oilseed rape crop was “frosted out in many areas – completely killed off.” So they planted abnormally large areas of spring barley instead which made the worldwide price of barley plummet.
In Britain it’s been – as if we didn’t know it – wet. But more importantly it was wet and sunless when the crops, especially the wheat crops, were trying to flower. That meant grains didn’t develop. And it was so wet that some farms were hit by a fungus that prevents proper development of the grain.
David Lemon farms over 3,000 arable acres in the Hungerford, Wilton, Easton Royal area – about a quarter of that is the family farm, the rest is managed land. As David explained, there are two parts to this story. First the dull and wet May and June, and then the delayed and interrupted harvest.
It’s the worst harvest he’s ever seen. In some fields it’s just been too wet for heavy combines to work without sinking up to their very expensive axles.
He has a sophisticated and efficient plant to clean and dry the grain and his two enormous combine harvesters allow him to make the most of the few dry days.
The costs of the harvest are rising all the time. When David came back to Wilton in 2003 diesel was seventeen pence a litre, it’s now sixty-eight pence and he’ll be using 17,000 litres in a fortnight in tractors, combines and the drying units.
His winter barley was fine. But the spring barley had about ten per cent of ‘tails’ – that’s grain that hasn’t developed or has shrivelled and is not even fit to feed to cattle. His wheat has about five per cent of ‘tails’. He’s never seen anything like that before.
Fortunately, the farm has recently installed a biomass plant to heat six houses. So he will at least be able to burn the ‘tails’ with some positive output. But he would, of course, rather it was malting and bread quality.
Last year’s harvest was great. But the yields David is getting this summer look grim. Barley: 9.25 tonnes per hectare last year and 6.5 tonnes this year. Wheat: 11.5 tonnes per hectare last year and 7.5 this year. The result of all this? “Bread is going to be more expensive. So is milk and meat.”
David can store six thousand tonnes of grain – but he says he’s going to be looking at some empty bins. However, as he took me round some of the fields, he was still able to assure me that “It’s a privilege to farm in this amazing countryside. As farmers you’re very lucky to be able to do what you love doing.” So saying, a very dark, almost black fox ran out of the last bit of standing wheat in the field.
I was to meet James Sheppard at his down land farm near Mildenhall at eight in the evening. He’s the Deputy Chairman of the Wiltshire National Farmers’ Union and Chair of the Marlborough branch. His is a family farm of 450 acres – all arable.
It was dusk and his day was not yet over. So the only way I was going to get to talk to him was to ride in the tractor cab as he rolled in a new sowing of oilseed rape. The ground is so soaked that he had to finish in case it rained again in the night preventing him getting back onto the field next day.
He’s never known a harvest like it and he too blames the wet and dull months: “What we need in June and July is sunshine. We didn’t realise how bad it was. It was the critical time for the wheat to flower – the process went on too long leaving no energy for the plants to create much flower.” And few flowers means poor ears of grain.
Then there were some fungus outbreaks. This fungus covers the ears as they form and prevents them getting the light they need for photosynthesis. “No one can cope with a whole string of exceptional circumstances.”
His oilseed rape has not yielded well. His winter barley has a low bushel weight. And the wheat yield is well down: “Last year my loaded trailer held ten tons of wheat, this year the same loaded trailer only weighs about seven and a half tons as the wheat has a lower bushel weight. The lack of sunshine and continual rain was the the main reason for the lower yields.”
One of the great dangers of a poor harvest is that farmers have, as usual, had to sell crops ahead of harvest. When they do not harvest the contracted quantity or quality of grain, they have to buy in expensively to fulfil the contract.
He’s quite sanguine about this year’s exceptional weather: “You can’t farm for last year. Last year was very dry. You do the same as you do and keep growing the same crops and hope for the weather to be on your side.
James believes that eighty per cent of a crop’s yield is down to the weather. “We’ve great technology. But we’re continually battling the elements.”
Farmers cannot battle international market prices and commodity brokers who speculate on those prices: “The trouble with commodity brokers is that they’re one of the type of people if they see a margin they’ll buy and in doing so, put the price up. That leads to the position where people who aren’t farming make more money than the farmers.”
As I left him and the barn owl that was out and about, he was continuing rolling in the seed under the tractor’s impressive array of lights.
Nationally the harvest story may not be quite so bleak. The south west of England did have more than its fair share of the wet and sunless spring and summer weather. Up to Tuesday (August 21) it was reckoned that forty per cent of Great Britain’s harvest was in. But we will not know till the end of the second week in September – even later if the rains return in force – what the national yield figures are.
From the NFU’s headquarters, an advisor on combinable crops told me he had just spoken to an arable farmer in the north east of England who had not even started his harvest. His crops needed three days of sun to ripen and probably about five more dry days to be fit to harvest.
But he cautioned against being too gloomy too soon. He did say that on the evidence so far yields in the drier east of the country were holding up. Cold comfort for farmers in the Marlborough area.
And someone in the Bank of England is working out what this harvest and the wider world’s harvest will mean for the UK’s inflation – that and the price of oil, natural gas, electricity, train fares…. It may be a long winter of discontent over rising prices.
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