Dry spring and late frosts take their toll on East Anglia’s farm crops
- Credit: IAN BURT
The combination of a prolonged dry spell coupled with sharp spring frosts has been causing problems for many farms across East Anglia.
With the trend of below-average rainfall continuing into the spring, some growers are already irrigating crops which are showing signs of drought stress.
Andrew Francis is farm manager at the Elveden Estate, near Thetford, which grows 10,000 acres of vegetables and cereals in the sandy Breckland soil around the Norfolk-Suffolk border – many of which have suffered in the dry conditions.
'It has been a hard, taxing spring for us,' he said. 'We are getting a few showers but it is so cold that the crops are not moving on where they should be.
'We have had to go out and put water on our higher-value cereal crops, because we were starting to see drought stress symptoms.
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'Worst affected would be winter wheat, because we have not been able to get any water to it. On the sandier soils we are seeing pale green or yellow colouring with slightly stunted plants. Some of the winter barley has a few of these stress spots as well.
'If a plant is under drought stress it knows it cannot support all these grains, so it will produce less. It is not massive but it could knock 5pc of the yield off and then if it cannot build a green canopy it cannot intercept enough light to fill the grains and the grains will come out small.
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'With malting barley if you have too many thin grains it won't make the specification for milling quality and becomes feed, which has a significant impact on price.'
Mr Francis said frost damage to emerging potato plants had set production back by a week, and his vegetable crops had also required irrigation.
'We have had to water the carrots, parsnips and onions and they have not been emerging very evenly, or at all, so we have had to put moisture around the seeds. We have had to go over everything with a small irrigator to get things going.
'The other big problem we have was just after drilling, we have used residual herbicides to stop the first weed flush but they rely on moisture activity and because it has been so dry so they have been a lot less efficient. The onion fields are coming up weedy and it is creating a lot of problems.'
Earlier this week, farming leaders warned that orchards and outdoor fruit production could be vulnerable to the cold snap.
At Charlie Tacon's farm at Rollesby near Great Yarmouth, the coastal climate has prevented the worst of the frosts, but protective overnight fleece coverings for his strawberries have created other problems.
He said: 'Our early strawberries are all in flower so we have been very concerned and we have been fleecing up the strawberry crops overnight. We have not had frost damage, but the damage we are getting is because we are covering up the fruit and the wind has been hammering the fleece and damaging the petals. So it is a double-edged sword.
'We have not really had any frost damage but it has been very close and we wouldn't want to take a gamble.
'We are in the middle of the asparagus season and it has affected the quality of the asparagus. The asparagus we are picking outside is looking a bit weather-beaten and bent, and the quality of the skin is looking much rougher.
'Some of the sugar beet has gone into a dry seed bed and it is waiting for the moisture so it can germinate. It does affect your spray programme because the growth stages are all over the place and you are waiting for the latest group of plants so the weeds are getting out of control before you can spray it. I am putting bird-scarers on the beet, because it is growing so slowly the birds are having a peck at it.
'We are all doing a rain dance. Things are not drastic yet, but we need to start getting a bit of rain soon.'
An asparagus grower near Thetford said the late frosts have not been a cause for concern for his crop – in fact, the weather has helped him make his earliest-ever start to the harvest.
Tim Jolly's 20-strong team began cutting and packing 50 acres of asparagus on April 14, which is the earliest start in his 28 years at the farm in Roudham.
He said there has been some minor frost damage, but no more than he would usually expect.
'The quality is fine,' he said. 'The frosts are an issue, but they are an issue we have every year. It is nothing out of the ordinary.
'It is the earliest we have ever started. Last year by comparison we had asparagus in the field on April 8, which was the earliest we have ever seen, but we didn't start cutting until a month later because the weather was so miserable all through last April. This year, the weather has been kinder.'
Phil Garnham, a forecaster with Norwich-based Weatherquest, said he had received several calls from farmers about the lack of rainfall.
'We hear these concerns every day,' he said. 'A lot of our customers have had crops failing because there is not been the persistence of rainfall that you would expect.
'After a dry winter we had a relatively wet January, with 45-50mm across the county, which is about where it should be. But in February we had half the average rainfall and in March it was 40pc. And in April, so far this month it has been 18mm of rain against an average of 44mm.
It is a bit of a strange pattern. Normally at this time of year you get fronts coming across the Atlantic and you get bands of rain coming through. But this period has been dominated by high pressure.
'There are some signs of short-term change We have got a front coming through from the west on Sunday night and Monday morning and that could give some places 5-8mm of rain, which is not enough, bit it could help the crops that are depending on that moisture. There is not a great deal of rain beyond that, as it is back to high pressure dominating again.'