Exhausted farmers cool off the combines after gruelling harvest

A combine brings in the wheat harvest on the Euston Estate

Harvest in full swing on the Euston Estate in west Suffolk - Credit: Euston Farms

Frazzled farmers across East Anglia have been limping to the finish line after their hardest harvest in years.

Damp and dull conditions have meant harvest has been slow and laborious for many growers in Suffolk and Essex — after a promising start to the summer ended in disappointment.

Ideally, farmers like their plants to get plenty of sun and hydration during the growing period — then a period of warm, dry weather offers ideal conditions to get their cereals in.

Last year and the year before, the region’s crops baked in the heat — meaning yields suffered but the combines sliced through the cereals with ease — making for a very easy harvest.

This year, the mercury failed to rise in August, hovering stubbornly between the teens and low 20s — and farmers were left scratching their heads. But while this year’s is not a bumper crop — many are reporting average or in some cases, below average, yields — commodity prices are soaring.

Harvest 2021 at Euston Estate near Thetford

Harvest 2021 at Euston Farms - Credit: Euston Farms

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National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Suffolk branch chairman Glenn Buckingham, who farms the Helmingham Estate near Debenham, said it had been an “ordinary” harvest for him.

His oilseed rape crop established well but then suffered in the wet winter. “At least we had a crop and prices are good — the previous year dry and (cabbage stem) flea beetle meant no rapeseed,” he said.

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“Our winter wheat and barleys were sown in the wet October and were satisfactory considering,” he said. His spring barley managed average yields after its growth — and that of other crops — was hampered by the dry and cold spell spring. 

He grew marrowfat peas for the first time this year. These appeared to have done well and he was hoping they would make the grade for human consumption.

He has also trialled his first soya crop — an unusual protein crop to grow in Britain — for human consumption. This has yet to be harvested but was looking “OK”, he said. “They are not mature yet. This is normal and we need decent weather in about three weeks.”

He described the harvest period as the “driest wet harvest” for a while — with not enough sun and heat for several days in August to get grain moistures down in the field — although a late spell of reasonable weather did come.

“Considering how little rain there has been a fair proportion of grains harvested above 15% moisture and therefore some in-store drying was needed,” he said.

He is now getting ready for his autumn drilling. He has already planted his rapeseed — but predicted some fields would fail due to a dry spell in his area.

He added: “Commodity prices high, but we are seeing input shortages and input price rises which is sharpening the mind.”

Euston Estate director Andrew Blenkiron said his cereal harvest got off to a late start. The Euston combining team normally flies out of the traps early, but this season, it started 10 days later than what has become the norm in recent years. 

“When we got going we went straight through,” said Andrew.

The barley was cut dry,  with moistures never being more than 14%, but yields had been “disappointing”, he said.

“That is no doubt a reflection of last autumn’s poor sowing conditions and the very cold April this year.” Spring started late and included 20 nights of frost, he said.  

“Wheat yields have been average, but quality has been excellent, with everything being of superb bread making quality. That in turn has led to exceptional prices — over £200/tonne at harvest has never been heard of before.  

“We managed to cut 80% dry, the rest did have to go through the drier, but I believe keeping going when it was wet was the secret to getting finished by August 18  and preserving quality. Once we got finished we even managed time to help Elveden finish theirs as well. 

“Maize and sugar beet have both benefited from a moist June/July and early August. Of course, until Tuesday (September 14) it has been very dry since we finished cereals.”

Mike Porter, who farms at Walpole, near Halesworth, still managed to bring in a very impressive 11.29t/ha of feed wheat on his own fields despite the weather setbacks, but he also farms for neighbours, and across three farms the yield came in at 9.76t/ha.

He grew spring barley (6.4t/ha), linseed (2.02t/ha), naked oats (4.94t/has), vining peas for Anglian Pea Growers (5.82t/ha) and oilseed rape (3.1t/ha).

He described this year’s harvest as “nothing spectacular”, but added: “At the end of the day, considering what things looked like last November and in March we are very lucky to have a harvest considering the conditions we drilled them into.”

Harvest had been “quite tiresome”, he admitted. With 17 or 18% moisture in the cereal crop they had to work to bring that down to 15%, sending their electricity bill sky-high.

Stephen Rash, of Wortham, near Diss, described his 51st harvest as a “long and tedious” one. “We started I think July 20 and we finished last Wednesday (September 8). 

“It was just an awful, long, drawn-out harvest,” he said. “We spent a lot more on drying — we burnt an awful lot of gas to do the drying. It all adds to the stress and the time involved. It was a long, hard harvest. Yields across the board were not remarkable but certainly solid.”

His wheat yields were around 3.5t/acre, winter beans 1.75t/acre and spring barley 3t/acre. He also grew some marrowfat peas for the first time. It was a “satisfactory” harvest in the end but the growing season had been a challenge and “one of the more stressful harvests I can remember”.

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