Preparing for the drought years ahead
- Credit: Archant
The important contribution growers make to the Suffolk coastal economy was highlighted at a conference earlier this month.
Food and farming sector leaders were joined by politicians and public sector decision-makers at a conference which focused on the irrigation challenges faced by farmers working its fast-draining sandy soils.
The event, entitled Water: farming’s essential ingredient, took place at Wantisden Hall Farm.
It was organised by East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group, supported by the Suffolk Agricultural Association and chaired by Orford landowner and former Country Land and Business Association president Sir Edward Greenwell.
Speakers included Douglas Inglis of Velcourt Farming, National Farmers’ Union national water resources specialist Paul Hammett, Jane Burch from the Holistic Water Management Project and Mark Pettigrew of Pepsico.
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The day demonstrated the importance of a reliable source of water for irrigating crops grown in Suffolk.
It also highlighted issues around water abstraction licences and steps farmers are taking in the region towards responsible water usage and environmental protection.
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Although set in one of the driest parts of the UK, Suffolk coastal farmland, once considered poor because of the lack of nutrients in the soil, has become a huge contributor to the country’s fresh fruit and vegetable production. Soils have been improved and irrigation added to make production viable, but water is at a premium, delegates heard as they were shown how farmers around the world were using innovative methods to conserve water.
The soil worked by Sir Edward’s grandfather when he bought land in the area in the 1930s was light and infertile, and used for grazing sheep, he told delegates.
“It’s always been a deprived area until recently,” he said.
But the drive towards producing more food in the post-war period had made it productive, he explained.
Today, almost 80% of the irrigation water for farmland around the Alde and Ore estuary was taken from the flood plain, so if that was lost, £10m worth of irrigated production would go with it, of which £7m went back into the local economy.
“Irrigation is existential to the economy,” he said.
Douglas Inglis, who is in charge of managing a series of farms in the area and is based in Woodbridge, looks after five businesses which depend on irrigation. He pointed out that growers invested heavily in their crops and could not afford to deal with the uncertainty that a lack of irrigation would prompt.
“We couldn’t envisage putting that area of crops on this soil and into the ground without having irrigation – it’s absolutely fundamental.
“We need to achieve good yield but, more importantly, we have got to achieve the right quality,” he said.
Depending on conditions, these farms might use anything from 30% to 100% of the water permitted under their abstraction licences, said Mr Inglis. This year, a wet June had meant little irrigation was needed, but in other years, the situation was different.
“We have a very, very spiky demand which is determined by the cropping and by seasonal weather,” he said.
Mark Pettigrew, who is responsible for Pepsico’s sustainable agriculture programme in Europe, works with growers supplying raw materials for Walkers Crisps, Quaker Oats, Doritos, Copella Apple Juice and Lays Chips.
He explained his involvement in the Walkers 50 in 5 programme, aimed at reducing its farm carbon and water footprints by 50%, which is now in its fifth and final year.
“The final potatoes came out last month – we have done it and we are pretty chuffed with our results,” he said.
“We wanted to show continuous improvement. I’m a great believer that any advice we give is practical. We are not tree huggers – although I have been accused of being a tree hugger.”
He explained how the use of drip irrigation had radically reducing water consumption in crops, how the Cool Farm Tool for helping farms measure carbon footprints and how data, taken from around 100 farms, was helping inform decisions. This had shown how some farmers were irrigation based on calendar dates rather than crops needs, he explained.
At Elveden, through looking at data and adapting practices, they had seen a 36% cut in water use and a 7% rise in yield at the same time using drip irrigation.
Paul Hammett pointed out that Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk produced 34% of the national output in fresh produce. Irrigated crops in East Anglia were at the heart of a food and drink industry worth £3bn which supported 50,000 jobs, he said.
The question the industry was asking was what were the Government’s water abstraction reform proposals going to change for farmers and would it be better or worse, he said. The opportunity to get “new water” for those without licences in Suffolk was “pretty much closed”, he said. The present system limped along in normal times but was under “enormous pressure” when conditions were dry, he said.
“Therefore the most pressing concern for farmers in common with other users is who gets the water when there’s not enough to go around,” he said.
The NFU agreed the current system was in need of change.
“The reality is it will have a major impact on individual growers and the whole fresh produce sector and we need to take quite a large leap of faith and the devil will be in the detail, as always,” he said.
Henry Leveson-Gower, DEFRA head of abstraction and upstream, said abstraction reform was largely about enabling, and allowing growers to do “sensible things” on the ground.
“It’s not about someone like me telling you what to do,” he said.