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‘We had 20pc of our annual rainfall in five days’ - farmers’ concerns amid autumn deluges

PUBLISHED: 14:35 01 October 2020 | UPDATED: 20:57 01 October 2020

Potato harvesting between the downpours at Heath Farm in Woodbastwick. Picture: Nick Hood

Potato harvesting between the downpours at Heath Farm in Woodbastwick. Picture: Nick Hood

Nick Hood

An exceptionally wet start to the autumn has bogged down farming operations across Norfolk – and prompted concerns over potato crops in sodden fields.

Norfolk was the wettest county in England during September 2020, when compared with average rainfall. The Met Office says it was the wettest September since 2001. Picture: Met Office / Crown copyrightNorfolk was the wettest county in England during September 2020, when compared with average rainfall. The Met Office says it was the wettest September since 2001. Picture: Met Office / Crown copyright

The storms and heavy rain at the end of September left arable farmers dealing with issues including fallen trees, flooding and soil erosion, as more than 90mm of rainfall recorded in just 48 hours last weekend at monitoring stations in North Walsham, Fakenham and Dereham.

The wind, gusting up to 70mph, also caused havoc for fruit growers including Sharrington Strawberries, where crops and poly-tunnels were destroyed by the gales.

Now, with more heavy rain forecast for the coming weekend, farmers are desperate for a change in the weather which has put the brakes on this year’s potato harvest and hampered efforts to plant next year’s winter wheat and barley.

Thomas Love, of Walcott Farms on the north Norfolk coast, said he had lifted about a third of his potato crop so far, but was worried about the prospects for the rest of the season unless the weather improves soon.

North Norfolk potato grower Thomas Love of Walcott Farms. Picture: Mark BullimoreNorth Norfolk potato grower Thomas Love of Walcott Farms. Picture: Mark Bullimore

“The forecast is awful and we know already that we are going to be in difficulties for the rest of the season,” he said. “We are going to lose a week’s harvesting at a critical point of the year.

“We would usually finish by the end of October, but I cannot tell you when we are going to finish now because everything is slower. We would usually expect 50mm, but we are likely to end up with over 200mm in September and that is virtually unheard of.

“We are up against it. Nothing is lost yet but it all depends on the weather from now on. We could get lovely dry weather in the last two thirds of October and we could catch up, but it does not look like it at the moment.

“If we get a lot more rain then we are really going to struggle to drill land and to lift crops, because the soil is totally full now. It is at capacity and everything becomes more difficult the longer it stays like that.”

Potato harvesting between the downpours at Heath Farm in Woodbastwick. Picture: Nick HoodPotato harvesting between the downpours at Heath Farm in Woodbastwick. Picture: Nick Hood

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Nick Hood, of Heath Farm in Woodbastwick, recorded 129mm of rain in September, with the majority falling in the last week – “smack in the middle” of his optimum window for establishing cereal crops.

“We had 125mm in the last week, that’s about 20pc of our annual rainfall in about five days,” he said. “It is the wettest September in the ten years I have been measuring it, and it has all come in the last week of the month.

“From a farming perspective it is a critical time of year for lifting potatoes and establishing winter wheat and winter barley. We have not drilled anything for a week and lifted very few potatoes and it has put a lot of water into the ground so it is difficult to get work done quickly – and it looks like the weather patterns are not changing in the next week or so.

Tony Bambridge, managing director of B&C Farming at Marsham. Picture: Brian Finnerty / NFUTony Bambridge, managing director of B&C Farming at Marsham. Picture: Brian Finnerty / NFU

“We will finish our potatoes in the next couple of days, but it is going to be tough to bring land back together to make a good job of establishing winter wheat and barley crops.”

Tony Bambridge is managing director of B&C Farming at Marsham, a farming and contracting business specialising in seed potato production. He said his potato harvest was ahead of schedule despite the storms and there was “no need to panic” – although he is concerned about potential issues in potato stores.

“We are concerned about what might have happened to their storability,” he said. “On the potato skin you have ‘lenticels’ which help the potato respire and when the ground gets flooded they open up and you can get bacteria in the potato skin. The fact that we had so much rain makes the potato more prone to bacterial infections in store.

“We have to be careful what we wish for, because we needed some rain but we had a little too much. A lot of farmers have said it is remarkable how well the land has dealt with it, considering we had four inches in 48 hours. There was some run-off, unfortunately, which is not good to see. But in a lot of places it has sunk in and gone through the land.”

Farmers helped to clear fallen trees from roads after last weekend's storms. Picture: Tony BambridgeFarmers helped to clear fallen trees from roads after last weekend's storms. Picture: Tony Bambridge

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Mr Bambridge, who is also a tenant farmer on the Blickling estate, said one of the biggest impacts of the storms was the loss of so many mature trees from the countryside. But he said the rain could benefit East Anglia’s sugar beet crop – as long as it eases off during the winter harvest campaign, due to begin at Wissington sugar factory on October 6 and at Cantley on October 13.

“The rain will have benefited the sugar beet tremendously, and it will make sugar beet lifting easier so the crop should benefit from that rain,” he said. “Some farmers are concerned. Last year it started raining around September 22 and didn’t really know when to stop until the end of January. A lot of farmers are concerned we will have a similar poor run of weather, which would be problematic.

“I am thinking it is still only the end of September and there is plenty of time for some better weather.”


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