Cold March impacts Norfolk farmers
- Credit: Archant © 2007
We might not be as hard-hit by the return of winter as some parts of the UK, but the cold and ice is hitting farmers and growers, gardeners and even wildlife. Agriculture editor MICHAEL POLLITT and TARA GREAVES report.
One of the coldest months of March for a quarter of a century or more has put farmers across the eastern region on the back foot and delayed crops.
Growers of key crops including sugar beet, potatoes and peas are waiting for soil temperatures to rise.
While cold weather has delayed progress, East Anglian farmers have avoided the blizzards in northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and the land has been drying out, while western England has seen more flooding.
Norfolk potato grower Tony Bambridge said: 'We have fared so much better in this part of the world compared with other people, we really don't have any right to complain at all.'
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And one of the country's biggest blackcurrant growers, mid-Norfolk farmer Chris Allhusen, who is a former chairman of the Norfolk branch of the Country Land and Business Association, said: 'I'm thinking we've been rather lucky here in the east.'
The cold weather has been a boon for his 260 acres of blackcurrants, which benefit from a period of sustained low temperatures below 7C.
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About 5pc of the crop has been drilled. At this time last year, British Sugar estimated that 50pc was drilled. Two years ago, when a record 1.3 million tonnes of sugar was produced, the entire area was planted.
With a third of the national crop grown in Norfolk, farmers have been advised to wait. With cold soils and temperatures below the seasonal average, there was no point in drilling into unsuitable seedbeds, added a spokesman.
Norfolk farmer Andy Allen, chairman of the Asparagus Growers' Association, said that the main crop was likely to be late but could recover if temperatures rose soon. 'The polythene crops are a week behind,' he added.
He grows 190 acres at Portwood Farm, Great Ellingham, near Attleborough, including 55 acres under polythene. 'Traditionally the season starts on May 1 but we've got used to an earlier start.'
With 3,000 hectares planted nationally against 15,000ha in the ground last year, growers just had to wait. Tony Bambridge, chairman of the country's largest potato marketing group, Greenvale AP, said: 'We're frustrated that we can't get on with operations. We can't do it, that's all there is to it.'
'We wouldn't normally plant until about March 10 to 15. Provided we can go in April, it is not a great problem at the moment,' said Mr Bambridge, of Park Farm, Blickling, near Aylsham. 'It is the coldest and latest that I've ever known in 33 years of farming,' he added.
Chris Allhusen, chairman of the Blackcurrant Growers' Association, who farms at Bradenham, near Dereham, said that the crop needed about 2,000 hours below 7C – chill hours – for an average variety to have enough winter vernalistion to bud break nice and cleanly.
'The weather for blackcurrants is perfect. We've had a jolly good cold winter which also helps to kill the bugs,' he added.
However, backward crops of oilseed rape were feeding armies of pigeons.
Mint and herbs
Blofield farmer David Bond, who is one of four Norfolk mint growers for Colman's of Norwich, said that the harvest would be delayed. He coordinates the Norfolk mint harvest of just under 100 acres.
'If we get an early start to the season, then we can possibly get three cuts. We're looking to get maximum yield over the whole growing season and the longer the season the better.'
As a specialist grower of about 12 acres of rosemary, he was concerned by the long cold winter. 'I know we've lost some plants when the temperature went to -8C,' he added.
Broadland farmer Richard Hirst, chairman of Anglia Pea Growers, said: 'We would normally expect to start drilling peas at the beginning of March but in the last couple of years we've not started until the mid to the end of March.
'We're not too concerned at the moment. We're hoping to start later this week.'