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‘We’re in the lap of the gods’: UK farmers contend with extreme weather

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Six months ago, after Britain’s driest February in 30 years, Andrew Blenkiron feared a lack of rain would threaten crops on the farm he manages in Suffolk, eastern England. Now he has the opposite problem.

Some 2,000 acres of wheat and barley on the 7,000-acre Euston Estate have been compromised by the wet weather, with the Met Office, the national weather service, finding this July was the UK’s sixth-wettest on record.

“The day we got the combine harvester out, it started to rain,” said Blenkiron.

This year has so far been a period of extremes: February was the driest second month of the year since 1993, while June was the hottest since records began in 1853. Unseasonably heavy rain followed throughout July and the first week of August.

Weather patterns have always dictated the success of a harvest. But this year, as wheat sits soaked in store or untouched in the fields, farmers say it is becoming more difficult to mitigate the risks that an increasingly volatile climate poses to UK food security. 

As of August 8, only 5 per cent of cereal growing in Great Britain had been harvested, far below the five-year average of 36 per cent by that stage in the season, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, an advisory body to farmers.

Early summer’s high temperatures meant grains were ready to gather earlier than usual, but as they reached maturity, persistent downpours made the fields too wet to harvest.

Chart showing the Cumulative rainfall (mm) of the UK between July and August. June was much drier than normal whereas July and August have been much wetter

Simon Griffiths, a researcher at plant science institute the John Innes Centre, said that if the grain stayed moist, “it will start to soften and the germination process will begin”. The process triggers the breakdown of the grain’s starch into sugars, making it less viable for use in making bread.

If grain quality falls below a certain level, farmers are forced to sell it as animal feed, and at a much lower price. AHDB data put the cost of a tonne of bread wheat in the first week of August at £248.50, compared with £187.60 for a tonne of wheat sold as animal feed.

“If we don’t have the quality, the values we have as farmers are massively reduced — it all ends up going into animal food,” said Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, who farms in north Essex.

“Right now we’re in the lap of the gods . . . Weather used to be 50 per cent of what we do on the farms. Now it’s 80 per cent,” he added. “When you look at all the extreme weather we’ve had, that is climate change in action.”

Harvesting wheat at Euston Estate farm in Suffolk
Harvesting wheat at Euston Estate farm in Suffolk as soon as the rain stopped © Si Barber/FT

To prevent deterioration, some farmers rolled out their combines as soon as the rain let up, bringing sodden crops inside to dry in the hope of preserving their quality. If harvested at a moisture level above 15 per cent, wheat has to pass through a grain dryer to restore it to sufficient quality to be converted into flour.

Using heaters to dry grain is very costly, however, because they largely run on gas or diesel, so other farmers have held out for more sunshine. Blenkiron opted to bring his grain in, incurring a cost of £15 a tonne to remove 3 per cent moisture in a process that added 10 per cent to overall production costs.

Bread made in the UK contains approximately 80 per cent homegrown flour, according to industry body UK Flour Millers. The rest comes primarily from Germany, Canada and France, which altogether accounted for 69 per cent of imports last season.

But harvests abroad have also been compromised this year, with the German Farmers’ Association reporting that wet weather had forced members to delay their cereal harvest.

AHDB analyst Helen Plant said that while it was too early in the harvest to say what volume of domestic wheat had been affected, the concern was whether enough would be of milling quality.

“If it doesn’t meet specification, the buyer will penalise you . . . or they might not accept it at all. Then you have the cost of extra haulage for redirecting it to another home, like a feed wheat market,” she said.

Andrew Blenkiron examining wheat in the grain store
Andrew Blenkiron examining wheat in his grain store. He incurred a substantial cost drying out the sodden grain © Si Barber/FT

Griffiths said farmers could mitigate the risk of drenched crops by choosing a breed of wheat whose grain was less likely to germinate before being harvested, although no farmer would have contemplated this during last year’s record heatwave.

The NFU this week called on the government to boost production of homegrown food, citing “recent bouts of extreme weather”. It cautioned ministers against allowing the country’s food production to supply ratio to fall below current levels of 60 per cent.

Farming minister Mark Spencer said the government recognised “how crucial food security is” and was taking action to increase production.

“We are committed to maintaining food production at current levels and will continue to support our farmers and food producers as part of our plans to grow the economy,” he added.

Blenkiron feels strongly that farms should tackle climate change, and has earmarked 10 per cent of the estate’s arable land for solar panelling to help curb emissions. But as a result, the farm produces less food.

“We need some mechanisms where we are encouraged to grow the crops, and our cost of production is kept low,” he said. “If we lower our production then [the UK has] to bring loads of food in. That’s the dilemma I face all the time.”

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