Farmers distraught as harvest yields plummet

PUBLISHED: 16:52 06 August 2020 | UPDATED: 17:07 06 August 2020

Harvest 2020 on the Euston Estate  Picture: PETE MATSELL

Harvest 2020 on the Euston Estate Picture: PETE MATSELL

Pete Matsell/Euston Estate

Some of Suffolk and Essex farmers’ worst fears have been realised as their main cereal crops come in to reveal some disastrous yields.

Guy Smith, who endured his worst harvest this year (2020)  Picture: GUY SMITHGuy Smith, who endured his worst harvest this year (2020) Picture: GUY SMITH

Farmers across the region were holding their breath after a dire winter and spring put their crops in jeopardy.

Ceaseless rain over the winter meant many winter crops failed or struggled to establish roots, and in spring, rain gave way to a seemingly endless dry spell which meant seeds failing to germinate or struggling against the odds.

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It all added up to a yield disaster on some farms as they started combining over July and August.

Essex farmer Guy Smith, who grows cereals at St Osyth, near Clacton-on-Sea, described his as “the worst harvest I’ve ever experienced by a country mile”.

Harvest 2020 was a poor one overall for cereals on the Euston Estate  Picture: PETE MATSELLHarvest 2020 was a poor one overall for cereals on the Euston Estate Picture: PETE MATSELL

And over in west Suffolk, Andrew Blenkiron, estate director on the Euston Estate near Thetford – who has finished his cereal harvest – said both his winter barley and wheat crops were down by 30%. It’s his worst harvest since 2011 - and that was a disaster, he said.

Guy – whose land lies in the driest region of the UK – said his first wheats on heavy land gave him some “half decent” crops which will show a positive margin.

But on other parts of the farm, he was faced with loss-makers, and said his winter beans and winter oilseed rape had to be put in the “crop failure” category.

“The wheat on lighter land and the spring wheat have struggled to hit 6.5 tonne hectare,” he said.

A combine brings in the wheat harvest on a field south of Eye in 2020  Picture: MARTIN CHAMBERSA combine brings in the wheat harvest on a field south of Eye in 2020 Picture: MARTIN CHAMBERS

“The peas were reasonable given we didn’t spend anything. There was plenty of them but unfortunately they were very small in size. If I had been harvesting pearls I’d still have been disappointed in the size.”

But a fairly dry harvest has meant that farmers can bring in their crops quickly, and without having to dry it afterwards.

“In terms of harvest weather, mercifully the drought that did the damage in May and June persisted into July and August making it an easy harvest with no drying,” said Guy. “If anything, the crops were coming in too dry. Harvest started and finished in record time with the combine romping through crops at record speeds.

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“While farming colleagues to the north will not appreciate me saying this, what I want now is some sodden weather to soften up the land do we can cultivate without creating brick rubble. I also need moisture to chit next year’s rape crop which will be seeded shortly.

“Having said that, when I started getting desperate for rain last September the weather went from one extreme to the other.”

What farmers needed was a couple of inches of rain a month, rather than huge amounts or none at all, he said.

Over in Euston, Andrew said his winter barley yields averaged 5.75t/ha, with not a lot of straw produced. Prices were also low at £126/t, he said.

His wheat did a bit better at 6.25t/ha, all of good quality milling specification, with more than 13% protein, a good Hagberg score and good specific weights, although again the crop didn’t yield much straw. However, the price was much better with quite a bit netting more than £180/t.

Meanwhile, with blazing temperatures predicted, his maize and sugar beet – which had enjoyed the sun – now needed rain, he said.

On the other hand, his irrigated vegetable crops had done well in ideal conditions, he said. “But they have taken a lot of water to get them there,” he added.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Suffolk branch chairman Glenn Buckingham, who farms in Framsden, near Debenham, said there were probably some early drilled winter crops about that were respectable, but this would be a harvest to forget, with farmers getting the combines in the barn and moving onto another season.

They had endured “the agony” of last autumn then the dry spring, he said. Across the country, he had heard some disaster stories but also some respectable results, indicating, as ever, that the picture would be patchy.

He was in the middle of his harvest with some crops not quite ready but he was expecting overall his winter wheat and barley would be below his five-year average on yield and his spring barley either average or slightly above. So far his harvests had been either “very ordinary” or “disappointing”.

“I think there are some very ordinary results out there - just by observing the swaths of straw,” he said. “The industry has gone very quiet. The autumn crops didn’t want all that rain, and didn’t develop properly. They hadn’t got a root system, and that’s it.”

It was a “good job” there were still agricultural support mechanisms in place to help UK farmers through the extreme weather volatility, he said.

But these subsidies are set to be abolished under the new Agriculture Bill going through parliament, to be replaced by alternatives such as an Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) and productivity grants for farmers.

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