East Suffolk: Farmers call for ‘fair share’ of water

SUFFOLK farmers called for a ‘fair share’ of water when they met with a Government Minister in Westminster this month.

East Suffolk farmers and Suffolk Coastal MP Theres Coffey met with Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Minister Richard Benyon to discuss the best way of managing water in the future in order to safeguard food supplies.

Paul Hammett, senior policy adviser at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU)’s Newmarket office, who was also at the meeting, said it had been “constructive”.

“We want to make sure we have got a secure supply of water to grow our food,” said Mr Hammett.

“The conversation was all about how you manage water in terms of floods and droughts. What we are trying to do in agriculture is capture this water when you have got a lot of it and store it so you have got it for use when you need it because, of course, the issue at the moment is all this rain is falling on the farmers’ land, draining into the rivers and out to sea.

“The experience of this year has shown us if we are going to have more and more extreme weather we have got to get much better at storing water for when we need it and we are looking to Government to help us do that.

“It’s not simple to develop storage on farm. How can we encourage more?”

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Peter Youngs, group manager of East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group, and Orford-based landowner Sir Edward Greenwell were also in the small group which met with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment and Fisheries.

The meeting, which was organised by Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey for local farmers in her constituency, took place on the day the Government’s water bill was published.

“We want to be in at the bottom of that and make sure there is a fair share for farming really,” said Mr Youngs.

While farmers certainly did not want to harm the environment, there were ways in which water could be captured and used rather than being allowed to flow out to sea in order to help farmers cope with weather extremes and the need for irrigation in long, dry spells, he said.

Abstracting water at high tide was one idea, he said, and there was also the possibility of capturing water which is drained from the marshes in East Suffolk and pumped out to sea through Internal Drainage Board pumps.

It had been calculated that over the last 15 years, around the same amount of water used for irrigation in East Suffolk had been pumped out to sea, he said.

He praised the improved dialogue with the Environment Agency which had come about over the winter as a result of the drought crisis earlier this year.

“We managed to fill reservoirs because normally the reservoirs filling season finishes at the end of March. They were persuaded to extend the winter water filling period. We have had a lot of good dialogue with the Environment Agency and it just shows what can happen when you have got dialogue and a lot of common sense,” he said.

Planning issues around creating reservoirs, a flexible approach to surplus flows instead of the current summer and winter licencing regime and help in financing water storage projects were among the topics discussed.

The farmers also called for a move away from Section 57 restrictions, which relegate the water needs of farmers, and towards putting spray irrigators on equal terms with other stakeholders.

“We want to be able to take a realistic view. We want a fair share,” said Mr Youngs.

East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group’s view of irrigated field scale vegetable production in East Suffolk:

1. Because of its unique combination of soil type, climate and irrigation, East Suffolk is able to produce vegetables at the periphery of the UK growing season thereby reducing the need for imports. Examples are early potatoes, carrots, parsnips and onions and the harvesting of carrots and parsnips throughout the winter – all saving imports. These conditions are unique to East Suffolk; hence this production cannot be relocated elsewhere in the UK.

2. A supply of irrigation water is essential to produce the right quality and quantity of product for the market to ensure a return on money invested. This is the first year that production has been reduced due to lack of water for irrigation – fortunately not in East Suffolk. Availability of water for irrigation currently limits the output of field scale vegetables in the UK. With climate change, more water will be necessary to maintain the present UK production.

3. A recent Cranfield University Report shows that over 90% of agricultural output in East Suffolk (�51million) comes from growing irrigated fruit and vegetables and it contributes about �13m into the local economy through employment. If irrigation stops and farmers grow cereals instead, then estimates suggest that production value could fall to about �11million and local employment to �1.7m.

4. 2011 and 2012 were both close run situations with regard to water for irrigation and show what can happen. Not a good scenario for investing in irrigated crops in the future.