Farming opinion: East’s crops stress fear as dry spell continues

Winter barley looking good in sunshine Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Winter barley looking good in sunshine Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

On November 1, 2017, Brian Barker’s farm at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, became the Agricultural Horticultural Development Board’s (AHDB) first Strategic Farm for Cereals and Oilseeds in the UK. This month he looks at how his crops are doing after a long, dry spell

Brian Barker with his drone Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Brian Barker with his drone Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Brian Barker

I look out of the window. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the buzz of the bees on the flowers in the garden is almost deafening. In the green and pleasant countryside things look good.

However, farmers in the east are starting to become concerned as to how harvest will turn out.

Since my crops went into the ground, back in the autumn of last year, I have been nurturing them and feeding them to give my business the chance to make a profit. Everything that I have done, though, could be lost at the last minute.

The weather is an anomaly that we will never control and we have to take the risk of what it may throw at us. Farming is a gamble: we plant crops with the view to make money; we invest in care for that crop hopefully to protect our potential profit; we sell our crops through the year and we hope that the world market is reflected at the farm gate.

Dry ground cracking up Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Dry ground cracking up Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

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Then we throw in the totally erratic current weather patterns that could help or hinder our success. I sometimes wonder why we think farming is a viable option for us to pursue, given the level of risk that we cannot control.

Our neighbour was hit by a freak hail storm in May that decimated and pretty much destroyed his growing crops where it struck with so much force. I am sitting here in the knowledge I have only had 22mm rain in eight weeks, compared with previous three year averages of 101mm. This period of our crops’ growth is the vital stage, called grain fill, where water availability is key. I don’t have the option to irrigate my crops and so I have to rely on my soil holding enough water to swell the grain to its maximum before it dies off in the normal way before harvesting. In areas where water availability is even less, I have heard reports of crops dying early, due to drought stress, and no grain fill has occurred. Crops when green and growing don’t like temperatures over 25’C and require regular rain to replenish the water that the plants transpire – similar to human perspiration – in these temperatures.

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Soon it will be too late for our crops and we will have a reduced size of grain and so yield will be affected. Only when the buzz of the bees turns to the gentle murmur of the combine harvesters will we know what this year’s erratic weather has done to our crops. Farmers gamble every year and we have to take the rough with the smooth but British farmers will always be striving to produce healthy, nutritious and high quality crops to feed our nation – and also the birds and the bees in the countryside.

Spring beans flowering Picture: BRIAN BARKER

Spring beans flowering Picture: BRIAN BARKER - Credit: Archant

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