Summer washout threatens harvest disaster for farmers
Published 06/09/2008 | 01:16
Britain's farmers are lamenting what should have been one of the best wheat harvests in years after weeks of consistent rain ruined crops.
Vast tracts of cereal crops still lie unharvested across the country because the wet weather has made it impossible to collect produce from the fields. The National Farmers' Union estimated yesterday that up to half the wheat harvest still remains in the field.
Even in major wheat growing areas in the south such as Dorset and Norfolk, which would normally have had the wheat crop in weeks ago, some farmers are still waiting to harvest and are desperately hoping for a few warm, dry days to dry crops that are losing value by the day.
Their fears have been compounded by the wet weather front currently bringing more rain and travel chaos to much of England. Guy Gagen, the NFU's chief arable adviser, said yesterday: "We'd estimate somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent of the harvest is still out there in the field. Normally it would only be some areas of the North and Scotland with that much wheat still to be harvested but we're seeing the same thing in places as far south as Dorset."
For wheat farmers the urgency stems from the fact that wet wheat needs to be expensively dried and tends to be of poorer quality because it has a lower starch content than grain that is harvested early in the season. Experts now warn that much of the remaining crop will not be of good enough quality to use as milling wheat for bread. Instead it will be used as animal feed, which sells for much less on the international markets.
A poor harvest will also have a knock-on effect for consumers as Britain would have to import more expensive wheat from abroad, driving up prices of staple foods such as bread
Imported grain costs much approximately £20 per tonne more than the home-grown variety and consumers, who have already seen a 60 per cent rise in the price of a loaf of bread, face further price rises.
The exact amount of damage the wet weather has done to the year's harvest has yet to be calculated as grain merchants are still collecting and drying much of the remaining wheat. But a poor yield would be particularly galling for Britain's wheat farmers who had a bad season last year when thundery showers ruined much of the crop.
Hoping to cash in on last year's record high wheat prices, Brit-ain's farmers also planted a particularly large amount of wheat this year, much of which now risks being sold off for a much lower price than expected.
The Home Grown Cereals Authority said last month that Britain's harvest was expected to come in at 16.5 million tonnes, a rise of 3 million on last year and the biggest annual harvest since 2000. But unless the combines can get into the fields, much of that harvest risks going to waste.
For Teddy Maufe, who has 200 acres of cereals on his farm at Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, this year's harvest was touch and go. He managed to bring his wheat crop in three days ago, much later than he would usually have expected to do so. "I remember 30 years ago combining for three quarters of the days in August and on that basis we should have had 20 days by now," he said.
"For us farmers it's like having a horse leading the Grand National only to reach the last yard of the race and get cramp."
But others have not been so lucky. Stephen Howlett, a grain merchant from East Anglia, said: "The situation is getting worse and worse. There are many people who have been unable to get the harvest in, which is virtually unheard for this time of year around here."
He added: "Every day that goes by reduces the value of Britain's crop. We've had so much rain this summer and with more forecast for this weekend many farmers will have to wait till midway through next week at the earliest to get their crop in.
"It's such a shame because this year's harvest had suchgreat potential."
Freddie Laing, a farmhand from Scotland was working in the fields around Cambridge yesterday afternoon. "It's pouring down with rain right now," he said. "I know a lot of farmers have yet to finish with the harvest and with more rain forecast it's a pretty terrible situation."
Farmers in Shropshire and Warwickshire have been hit particularly hard and are desperate to get into their fields. But yesterday they complained that guidelines by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs forbid them from using the combines when the soil is wet.
The last great failed harvest
*The last time a harvest was left in the fields so late was in the years shortly after the Second World War, says the NFU's Guy Gagen. A severe lack of manpower and equipment meant that much of the harvest in the early post-war years remained uncollected: there simply were not enough farmhands.
"It's incredibly unusual," he said. "A harvest has never been made this late by the weather. Usually, it would be a shortage of manpower or a lack of equipment that delayed bringing the crops in from the field."
Stuart Dolphin, a grain merchant from the Wrekin, Shropshire, said: "In our area, I'd say about 40 per cent of the harvest is still in the fields. In all my life I've never encountered that much wheat still in the field come September. In a normal year, all you'd have left by now is a few beans to harvest."