It never rains and it never pours

Andrew Williams, farm manager at vegetable growing operation, Home Farm Nacton Ltd, near Ipswich, discusses his business’s approach to the problems associated with a lack of water

I HAVE always loved the spring, that first feel of the sun’s warmth on your back and the fresh green of new growth after months of grey dull green at best. The clean slate that as a grower a new season gives you and the chance to try and get everything right. But has anyone involved in agriculture failed to notice we are in a drought?

As spring kicks in and we start planting in earnest here at Nacton, there is plenty of moisture in the topsoil to work with if we keep cultivations close together to avoid excessive drying. Cereal crops look well and in some cases too well. Overwinter harvesting operations have been carried out in ideal soil conditions with little damage to soil structure.

So surely we must be happy growers poised and full of confidence as we move into the fields to establish our new crops. But the cloud that hangs over us as we step out is that the huge sponge underneath our feet that we scratch about on top of is closer to wrung out than full of water we desperately rely on.

But how come? Much of land we are involved in farming received average annual rainfall last year. The trouble is much of this rainfall came in July and August. This was great for last year’s crops and turned some of them from potential disasters into best-ever yields. However rainfall at this time of year does little if anything to top up our giant sponge that is our groundwater reserves. As we went into the autumn and through to today we have returned to rainfall figures well below average.

How badly are we off here at Nacton? Well, the majority of the licences to abstract water that we work with run from April 1 to September 30. Therefore we finished the abstraction year with full reservoirs as we harvested the water steadily through the period and we had topped them up by the end of what was a wet August last year.

The reason for the summer abstraction bias on our licences is the Environment Agency, driven by a European Directive, require the fresh water to flow over the mudflats of the Orwell Estuary during the winter as this is vital for the migrating wading birds. So we have full reservoirs and this year’s licences to work with. So what is the problem? Well, we go into this spring with subsoil below ploughing depth that is as dry as at the end of the driest summer. So any crop grown in absence of irrigation will suffer at a much earlier date than in 2011 when we came into a spring drought after a wet winter.

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Every irrigator in East Anglia will, at some point this spring, have thought long and hard about the capital intensive potato, vegetable and salad crops they will grow this year. The majority are locked in to the high cost high output systems they run and most will have committed to customers who will not return if seriously let down on either quality or quantity.

All these concerns beg the question of what can we as irrigators do to stop the possibility of having restrictions on our abstractions forced upon us. One thing often suggested is we become more efficient in our use of water. To use us as an example, we have invested heavily in order to make best use of every drop of water which includes purchasing seven booms to replace rain guns where possible.

All our hose reels have mobile phone links to allow reports on status to be gained at any time and give us the ability to start or stop by phone in the event of a change in weather. Timers allow delayed start, ie, to run at optimum time overnight, less wind, less transpiration, cheaper electricity. Sprinkler systems on some headlands and short work allow less wasteful overlap. Drip irrigation is used where most beneficial, ie, organic potatoes. The scheduling of irrigation with computer software, weather and soil moisture stations give us accurate live data into the office. This is in conjunction with regular field visits to assess soil moisture deficits, tied ridging wheelings, the use of aqueel and other cultivation techniques, the addition of soil organic matter to keep water in the field and training all farm staff in the efficient use of water. All these help in the push to greater efficiency.

Bear in mind that irrigation is a very costly business and also over-watering can be just as damaging as under-watering and this all focuses the mind. The investment here at Nacton in irrigation with reservoir, underground and over ground mains, booms, hosereels, pumps etc is some �3million.

What does the ability to keep East Suffolk irrigating mean to the local economy? Well, the assumption that switching irrigated fruit and vegetable land to cereal production would mean an annual fall in food value from �51m to �11m but also a fall in local employment contribution from �13m to �1.7m. There would also be a switch to winter drilled cropping away from the more bio diversity friendly spring cropping.

These figures have been researched by ESWAG (East Suffolk Water Abstraction Group) managed by Peter Youngs who does a great job by liaising between irrigation abstractors and the Environment Agency (EA), the National Farmers’ Union and other important bodies. Via ESWAG the EA has informed us that East Suffolk is unlikely to suffer restrictions this summer on water abstraction from ground water or reservoirs. However, river abstractors are more vulnerable.

Where would we source the food that a less or non-irrigated Suffolk would no longer produce? Well a lot of it would have to be imported as our harvest here is geared towards early and late season production that the rest of the country would struggle to produce. Importing food from the warmer climates of Spain, Portugal, Italy brings its own moral questions regarding what is effectively importing water from areas of Europe even worse off for water than ourselves. Not to mention the impact on our own food security and the impact of the added food miles.

As manager of such an irrigation-reliant business what more can I do to protect our right and physical ability to source the water we so desperately need. Keep buying into any plant breeding, technologies and techniques that keep us as efficient as possible. We improve the accuracy of our applications of fertilizer and pesticides with the aid of GPS, can we do the same with our water? Source varieties and crops that require less water, subject to our customers tastes being open to that move. Work with the Environment Agency on licence matters, for instance during period of ample water could we investigate abstraction outside of licensed period? Harvesting water around the high tide period i.e. 2-4 hours/day during the winter months?

Water in this highly productive, highly populated corner of the UK is in ever greater demand and there is simply not enough to meet everyone’s needs.

We all need to think outside the box around the water issue, growers, plant breeders, machinery manufactures, food companies, retailers and processors alike. I believe we cannot go on using around 25% of our water in the pursuit for the perfectly unblemished potato skin or shaped and sized vegetable, for that is what I believe we do here. A quarter of our water does nothing to put more food on a plate, it just gets used to meet some cosmetic specifications somewhere. Madness in this increasingly hungry and thirsty world of ours.