Farming feature: Will our patchy crops recover?

An NFU poll reveals farmers' fears over wheat crop

An NFU poll reveals farmers' fears over wheat crop - Credit: Archant

The outlook for this year’s crops is downbeat, but this region’s farmers have got off lightly compared to elsewhere, as SARAH CHAMBERS found out

Driving up to the two-day Cereals event at Boothby Graffoe, Lincolnshire, this week, Stowmarket farmer Tom Jewers was struck by how lucky we are in East Anglia this year when it comes to crop performance.

What he saw underlined what he had observed on an earlier trip to Cornwall and the west.

Yes, the weather has played havoc with East Anglia’s crops, and many of our farmers are reporting patchy results, but they are nothing compared to what his counterparts are facing in other parts of the country.

“I think actually in East Anglia we have got a lot to be thankful for. Looking outside of East Anglia I think we have actually had it very lucky. I have seen a lot of fields of oilseed rape that have been sprayed off now,” says the National Farmers’ Union Stowmarket chairman. “If you go to the west of the country, people hadn’t drilled a crop at all until March.”

Across the UK, the industry is bracing itself for a disappointing harvest. Coupled with the prospect of below-average yields is that of a volatile commodities market, with nearly £10 knocked off the price of wheat in the last week or so.

Snapshot polls of farmers published this week by the NFU showed that short term confidence among arable farmers was at a new low, and the harvested area on farms was on course to be almost 30% lower than in 2012 as they reap the results of an unprecedented period over autumn, winter and spring of extreme weather, varying from very cold to very wet. The wheat planting area, according the poll, was down 25%.

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The latest figures from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for East of England farm production show the region made £1.933billion from crops, and £1.132bn from livestock in 2012, and that after input costs are taken into account, the region’s farm income was £845m - more than any other region.

Overall, the figures show the short-term trend for farm income is upwards, although they were lower in 2012 than in 2011.

How the uneven performance of the region’s crops this year will affect the bottom line is difficult to tell as the market is global and affected by factors well beyond these shores. But one thing is for sure, income will be affected by a reduced crop.

An AHDB/HGCA planting survey for England and Wales conducted over December and January showed the estimated planting area for winter cereals was down by 19% following an extremely challenging autumn planting season. In the eastern region, it was down by 15% overall, which was equal to the East Midlands, and better than any other region, but still a substantial fall.

The figures showed the planting area in the eastern region for winter wheat was down 21%, for winter barley down 15%, winter oats, down 33% and winter oilseed rape up 4%, although the AHDB/HGCA expected crop abandonment for oilseed rape would be higher than usual so the year-on-year decline in the harvest area would be more noticeable.

Other crops have also been affected - Tiptree, the makers of fruit jams, and other fruit growers are having to wait longer for crops such as strawberries to ripen, putting them at a disadvantage in the seasonal fruit markets.

Tom Jewers, who farms about 900 acres of oilseed rape, sugar beet, wheat, barley and spring beans at Rattlesden, expects his yield to be down by about 15% in terms of his five year average. But then, due to drought then wet, his last two harvests haven’t been good either.

Crops which were looking pretty awful are making a recovery though, even those hit by an infestation of slugs. Things aren’t looking as bad now as they were, although later-drilled crops are faring worse and he is worried that with under-developed roots caused by the weather, they will not cope well with any prolonged dry period.

“To be honest, things do look better now,” he said. “It’s not going to be a record-breaking year, but we are looking more towards a lower than average year rather than a complete disaster.”

Stephen Rash, at Wortham, near Diss, counts himself among the farming sector’s optimists, but feels overall the prospects for this year’s UK harvest are poor. “It’s not easy to be upbeat,” he admitted. “The stuff that went in in good time and got established well has turned out to be a goodish-looking crop.”