East’s worried farmers keep fingers crossed for May rain as weather woes hit 2021 crops

The dry earth on a Suffolk farm at Nacton, near Ipswich, in the spring of 2021

Low rainfall and last frosts are affecting crops across the region as farmers struggle to keep up with the unseasonably dry and cold April - Credit: Sonya Duncan

East Anglian farmers’ hopes for a strong start to the new growing season have hit the dust — as an unseasonably cold and dry spring hampers crops.

Overnight frosts and lack of rain have left plants shivering in the fields in April — as the typically rainy month remained virtually dry.

Worryingly for farmers, the season appears to be following the same pattern as what was thought to be an exceptionally dreadful season last year when a rain-sodden winter was followed by a cold, dry spring.

But a change in the weather — forecast over the following weeks — could make all the difference.

Among farmers’ concerns is the wet winter which generally means that over-wintering crops tend not to stretch their roots so well — although the dry spring may make up for some of this as plants search for water. The cold and lack of water is affecting plant development, and the lack of rain means that fertilisers may not have been absorbed into the plants in the way they should.

“It’s another dry spring,” admitted Andrew Williams, farm manager at Home Farm Nacton, near Ipswich. “We seem to be in a run of this but on top of that it’s cold. Having cold as well is proving testing.”

He estimated that his vegetable crops would be about two weeks behind where they should be by this time — which will have knock-on effects when he goes to sell them into a finely-tuned market.

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“From the marketing point of view it’s a real headache,” he said. “There’ll be a gap and suddenly there’s be a surplus — neither of which are good for the grower or the market.”

He added: “We are worried. This is the coldest April for 60 years. There has been a frost somewhere in the UK for every day of the month and it’s a long, long time since we have had that. It’s damaged some crops.”

It also meant they had to irrigate much earlier than normal. “We have virtually been irrigating for a month in a period where we would not expect to be irrigating.”

The frost had damaged his potato crop, he said, and it looked as though his onion harvest might be delayed. His broccoli crop was also behind by about two weeks.

National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Suffolk chairman Glenn Buckingham, who farms near Debenham, described it as an “extreme” spring — and plants weren’t liking the temperature extremes between night and day. 

While typically he might expect 40-50mm of rain in April, he was looking at a meagre 1-2mm, he said. But while April’s weather had been a concern for farmers, they were hoping that relief was on the way with forecasts that the weather is turning.

On the plus side too — with other parts of the world also facing weather issues — crop prices are rising with oilseed rape rates soaring to as much as £440/t.

Guy Smith, who farms at St Osyth, near Clacton-on-Sea, said it had been like groundhog day watching the same weather pattern as last year. 

The pattern was “ominous”, he admitted. Since one shower early in April, not a drop had fallen on his crops, he said. But his rape crop, although hit by the weather and by cabbage stem flea beetle infestations, was still hanging on in there, he said.

Suffolk County Adviser Charles Hesketh said: “Farmers are experiencing a growing season of weather extremes – a wet winter, which delayed planting for many, followed by a cold, dry spring and frosts, the worst combination when trying to get crops established. 

“Crop nutrition is another worry for arable farmers - rain is needed to aid fertiliser uptake and growth at this important stage of development.
“Vegetable growers are telling us their crops are about two weeks behind where they should be and livestock farmers are concerned about slow grass growth, which has limited the availability of grazing for cattle and sheep.

“One positive of the wet winter is that farm reservoirs are full and irrigation prospects for crops such as fruit and vegetables are currently good.

“We will continue to monitor the situation across all farming sectors and hope the forecast of much-needed rain, with warmer temperatures, is accurate.”