‘Our yields are going to be appalling’: one of wettest winters in decades hits England’s farms

“We have had the wettest October, November and December since we started keeping records 27 years ago,” says Andrew Ward, a Lincolnshire-based arable farmer.

He flicks through videos on his phone of nearby fields that have been devastated by the heavy rain this winter, including one that shows him in front of what looks like a lake.

“That is my godson’s farm,” he says, pointing out the two-metre-deep water that has completely engulfed the land. “He’s been flooded since October […] The farm was drilled and fertilised [before the rain], so he may have lost £70,000 in one go.”

Fortunately for Ward, his 650-hectare (1,600-acre) farm, which produces wheat, sugar beet, barley and beans, has not been as waterlogged, but the high rainfall has taken its toll.

“We managed to get about 25% of winter crops planted […] Our yields this harvest are going to be appalling,” he adds.

Speak to farmers across the country and you will hear similar stories of how one of the wettest winters in decades has ruined thousands of acres of crops and put farms under tremendous financial pressure.

Few regions have been spared.

In the 12 months to January, only four of England’s 139 hydrological areas (regions around rivers, lakes and other water sources) were classed as having normal rainfall levels. Of the remaining areas, 47 were rated as having notably high levels, and 76 – more than half – were deemed exceptionally high.

The Kent area, known as “the garden of England” and home to many arable farmers, experienced its wettest 12-month period since records began.

Regions near major rivers such as the Wear, Don, Calder, Derwent, Mersey and Irwell reported the wettest six-month period since records began.

While January provided some respite, the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) said the saturation from the previous months of heavy rain meant soil had not had a chance to dry out, and the high February rain meant problems persisted.

For the 1,500 delegates at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference this week, flooding was top of the agenda in the conference halls and coffee breaks.

In her welcome speech, Minette Batters, the outgoing NFU president, singled out the extreme weather, saying some winter crops did not get planted, while others had been washed away.

That was the experience of Henry Moreton, a cereals farmer and Lincolnshire county vice-chair for the NFU. About 150 acres of his land has been flooded since early autumn, with some areas under as much as five metres (15ft) of water.

“This is the worst year we have ever had for flooding,” he says.

His oilseed rape, winter wheat and barley crops have been decimated, with losses estimated in the six figures.

Dale Robinson, the head of supply chain and technical at the organic veg box company Riverford, described the season as “tricky”, with a shortage in cauliflowers, and an impact on other brassicas such as sprouts and turnips.

The forecasts for this year’s harvest look gloomy. The Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) is predicting that wheat outputs will drop by a quarter.

David Eudall, the economics and analysis director at the AHDB, says: “In 2019-2020 when we had a very similar wet period through the autumn and winter for planting, we saw a 24% reduction in the planted area.

“Considering we’re in a similar area and have similar weather pattern we’d expect we’re going to see a similar magnitude of scale.”

That means production falling from about 14m tonnes of wheat, to about 10m tonnes.

The drier spring season would usually provide a chance for new crops to be sown. But increased demand for spring seed from farmers who missed out on planting in the winter because of the rain has led to shortages and higher costs.

“Seed availability is a massive problem,” says Ward. “Merchants are trying to get seed from abroad, which costs horrendous amounts of money.”

Persisting flood waters will mean some will not even get the chance to plant these seeds.

This had led to calls from the rural community for further flood defence spending, and more support for those affected.

Farmers have been particularly critical that the government expects them to store water on their land – letting it flood – to stop surrounding towns and villages from being flooded, without being paid compensation for this if their land is on a flood plain.

Rishi Sunak, who became the first prime minister to visit the NFU conference since 2008, was grilled on this issue by Batters. She called for a review of the flood defence grant scheme, to recognise the public good that farmers were doing by storing water.

Rishi Sunak on stage with Minette Batters at the NFU conference in Birmignham. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/PA

Sunak said flooding had been “devastating” and that he was always open to suggestions on how the government could improve matters. However, he defended steps taken by his government to support farmers.

“We do have support in place. The flood recovery framework, which has payments of up to £25,000 for land that has been particularly affected, is there and is working,” he said.

Sunak added that as chancellor he nearly doubled the flood defence spending to £5.2bn, with about 45% of this going on rural areas.

But for those storing water on flood plains, the chance of receiving any compensation still looks unlikely. Alan Lovell, the Environment Agency chair, said during a talk: “We can’t use public flood money for areas that are already natural flood plains.”

These responses have led to frustration among farmers and many feeling abandoned.

Anger at the flooding response, along with unpopular post-Brexit trade deals and a bungled agricultural transition from EU farming payments, appears to have driven some farmers away from the Conservative party at the ballot box.

Polling from Deltapoll released during the conference showed that support for the Conservative party in the 100 biggest farming constituencies had fallen from 58% in 2019 to a projected 32% this year. Labour topped the vote on 36%. It is a seismic shift in what is traditionally a part of the electorate that overwhelmingly backs the Tories.

With the climate crisis likely to bring yet more extreme weather events, finding a solution to protect agricultural land and finances will become increasingly important for governments of any party hoping to gain or maintain the farming vote.

Without more help, unlike the water sitting on hundreds of farms across the country, votes from rural areas could quickly dry up.


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