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Driest May on record sparks farming fears for rain-starved crops

PUBLISHED: 12:47 02 June 2020 | UPDATED: 12:47 02 June 2020

Norfolk farm contractor Kit Papworth is concerned about the impact the prolonged drought is having on the region's cereal crops, such as the wheat plants pictured. Picture: Kit Papworth / Chris Hill

Norfolk farm contractor Kit Papworth is concerned about the impact the prolonged drought is having on the region's cereal crops, such as the wheat plants pictured. Picture: Kit Papworth / Chris Hill

Kit Papworth / Chris Hill

Rain-starved crops are withering in parched fields after East Anglia’s driest May on record – with one farmer expecting his cereal harvest yields will be “as poor as anything I have seen in 20-odd years”.

May 2020 was the driest and sunniest May on record in East Anglia. This map shows estimated May 2020 rainfall anomaly (percent of average for the month). Picture: WeatherquestMay 2020 was the driest and sunniest May on record in East Anglia. This map shows estimated May 2020 rainfall anomaly (percent of average for the month). Picture: Weatherquest

Met Office figures show the region received just 4.2mm of rain last month, the lowest total since records began in 1862.

Norwich-based forecasters at Weatherquest said monitoring stations at Marham in Norfolk, Cavendish in Suffolk, and Wittering in Cambridgeshire were among the driest in the country, recording just 0.4mm of rain for the whole month – barely 1pc of their long-term average – and it is now three weeks since Marham and Wittering recorded any rainfall at all.

Some respite is on the way, with cooler weather expected to arrive on Wednesday which could bring some showers and the chance of more significant rain next week.

But farmers say it won’t come quickly enough to save some crops which are already too badly drought-stricken to recover.

Norfolk barley crops showing drought stress. Picture: Kit PapworthNorfolk barley crops showing drought stress. Picture: Kit Papworth

Kit Papworth, a director of farm contracting business LF Papworth, based at Felmingham near North Walsham, said he had recorded 6mm of rain in May, which had taken a toll on wheat and barley plants struggling to grow on free-draining light land.

“Looking at the stage we are at now, I would say the yields we will see this year will be as poor as anything I have seen in 20-odd years farming this land,” he said.

“We have got to hope that rain comes next week, but the damage is done now. The cereal crops in particular are really suffering on the light soils. The barley and wheat has gone and there is no turning back. Even some of the crops we have irrigated are just dying so there will be nothing there to harvest.

“Some of the stronger land is holding up, and even on the lightest land there are areas that are clinging on, so we have got to go the expense of harvesting every field. But overall the grain yield is going to be very, very poor.

May 2020 was the driest and sunniest May on record in East Anglia. This map shows the number of days since last recorded rainfall, up to May 31 2020. Picture: WeatherquestMay 2020 was the driest and sunniest May on record in East Anglia. This map shows the number of days since last recorded rainfall, up to May 31 2020. Picture: Weatherquest

“We had a wet autumn so establishment was difficult and crops have rooted poorly, and then we have had this incredible season where it was incredibly wet in February through to a drought in April and May.

“This is what climate change means for us. We are going to have to get used to extremes of weather for long periods, and that means yields will be variable and we will have to get used to more volatility in terms of the prices.

“That is the hardest thing about the ‘new normal’. For farmers, our job is to produce food and grow crops but in the old days you could put a crop in the ground and expect to make a reasonable amount of money from it. These days we are moving towards having to make good economic decisions as opposed to agronomic ones.”

READ MORE: Scorching May was the driest and sunniest on record

Chris Bell, of Norwich-based forecasters Weatherquest, said while this week’s predicted change in the weather is unlikely to bring major downpours, there could be better news for farmers next week.

Norfolk farm contractor Kit Papworth, director of LF Papworth. Picture: Chris HillNorfolk farm contractor Kit Papworth, director of LF Papworth. Picture: Chris Hill

“A colder front is coming down from the north so we will see a bit of showery rain into Wednesday evening, but not much,” he said.

“It will be breezy and showery and cooler, but between now and early next week I don’t see a huge amount of rain. There will be some rain around during that period but it will be small amounts. Towards the middle of next week there is a chance there could be something more significant rain-wise.”

Market analysts said although a low grain yield could be offset by higher wheat prices for farmers, it would not affect the price of bread at shops and supermarkets.

David Eudall, head of market specialists for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), said: “Wheat prices have moved higher over recent days as dry weather has spread across much of Europe, and for the UK weak sterling helped to support values. However, with rainfall in the forecast for much of Europe the crop fears are easing.

Norfolk wheat crops showing drought stress. Picture: Kit PapworthNorfolk wheat crops showing drought stress. Picture: Kit Papworth

“As we know, higher wheat prices don’t mean higher bread prices as the cost of wheat in a loaf is minimal. As we enter harvests across the northern hemisphere we do not see any critical supply shortages that would influence consumer prices.”

READ MORE: Slump in lockdown beer demand leaves farmers grappling with a huge barley backlog

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said while the situation is becoming “increasingly serious for the growth of rain-fed grass and cereal crops”, irrigated crops such as potatoes have benefited from full reservoirs and normal groundwater levels after the wet winter – although the early onset of irrigation combined with falling river flows since March indicates that “fruit and vegetable growers will also need to take difficult water-scheduling choices before the end of the season”.

NFU water resources specialist Paul Hammett said: “The overall mood within the farming community is one of concern about the extended period of dry weather that started very early in the farming calendar, but it’s too early to panic.

“Continued low rainfall and high temperatures into the summer will result in more widespread impacts for agriculture and the environment.

“As we move into what is shaping up to be a third consecutive dry year, there are some major policy issues for the NFU to consider as long-term climate change predictions point towards more frequent and more severe droughts and floods.”

Mr Hammett said those issues include more flexibility on abstraction licensing, strategic planning of supply and demand across the straw industry, more flexible application of “greening” rules and agri-environment prescriptions, and removal of “blockages in the planning system that impede the construction of more on-farm reservoirs”.


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