Perfect porridge needs a hatful of rain

HOW does a small farm in Suffolk have a global impact in food production? Well if I’m honest it doesn’t seem to really, but at times while dozing in my tractor cab, being steered by an unseen hand in the sky, these things tend to occupy my mind. Perhaps I have nothing else to think about to fill the lonely hours.

The other topic exercising the little grey cells at present is rain or rather a distinct lack of it. I was shown some charts the other day of rainfall across East Anglia. From August 2010 and every month’s rainfall total since then was either average or below average. Another fact that was brought home to me the other day was that Norwich has roughly the same level of rainfall as Jerusalem.

We all remember the dry and warm spring weather earlier this year, but then I would hazard a guess that we then think that the summer disappeared under leaden skies and rain, but it didn’t, as the rainfall was only average for June and July.

These rains saved our bacon on some of our crops. On others it made little difference, being too late to achieve good yields. Our crops were all over the place yield wise. Our late October sown wheats were 40% down on yield and our oat crop was nearly half our average yield, being in effect two crops - one that had died due to the drought conditions killing the smaller plants and the other survived to harvest.

Our early September sown wheats, on the other hand, produced a respectable harvest, as did our oilseed rape crop, but our average over the entire holding was down. This variability in crop yield to me is rather worrying as it means I cannot guarantee a crop to fruition anymore because of our erratic rainfall patterns.

So why should my little farm make any difference to food stocks on the supermarket shelves and thereby into the dreaded self-steering menace that is a four wheeled trolley on the way to the car park?

Well next year I hope to feed roughly about 14,027 folk every day, seven days a week with a healthy bowl of porridge with my oat crop. If my yields are down 50% then about 7000 people have to eat imported oats each day. It really is that simple.

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We have just marked the day of seven billion people on the planet, all of whom will need to eat. In my view it will be increasingly difficult to import food from places that are seeing their populations grow exponentially greater than that of us Europeans. The countries with fast growing populations will want to feed their own peoples first before exporting food to us.

This time last year our land was saturated because of the heavy rainfall during August to November 2010 and remained so until March when the drought started. This year the river that runs through our farm, the Deben of which we are just down from the source, is completely dry and has been so since April. Taking the land as a sponge it will take many inches of rain to get it to saturation point again over the winter months in order that the land drains run to supply the river, unless of course we have a really wet summer, which will do little for the barbecue industry.

We saw here on my farm at Debenham very clearly last summer how a lack of water can cause great variations in crop yields, but while the shelves are full of food I am sure this volatility will not be at the forefront of consumers’ minds.

The sad political football that is climate change has been kicked into the long grass at present by the financial turmoil in Europe, but our climate is changing. One only has to look at old world maps to see the gradual desertification of southern Europe, or more locally how our oak trees hang on to their leaves until nearly Christmas these days.

It is this lack of water, not just here, that is causing food prices to rise. We cannot produce more water; we certainly cannot make it fall out of the sky. And so I am at present waiting for the deluge to happen to fill the aquifers and, when it does, please think of your morning bowl of porridge for next year being grown in the fields you see as you travel about East Anglia.