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‘Fields are completely underwater’: UK farmers navigate record rainfall
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‘Fields are completely underwater’: UK farmers navigate record rainfall

Farmers have been dealing with record-breaking rainfall over at least the past year, meaning food produced in Britain has fallen drastically.

Livestock and crops have been affected as fields have been submerged since last autumn on account of it being an exceptionally wet 18 months.

According to the Met Office, 1,695.9mm of rain fell from October 2022 to March 2024, the highest amount record for any 18-month period in England.

Here, British farmers and growers tell us how they have handled the inclement weather conditions and what the heavy rainfall means for their immediate futures.

‘We are going to have an appalling harvest this year’

Tom Allen-Stevens sits amid a field in bloomView image in fullscreen

Our farm is mainly arable so it’s crops that we grow. The constraints that we are facing this year means we are going to have an appalling harvest. We’ve hardly got any crops in the ground at all, I’ve only managed to get 30 hectares [74 acres] of my 170 hectares planted and we have 110 hectares of “croppable” land. That’s less than a third.

Generally you plant in the autumn but the difficulty we’ve had this year is that from mid-October to effectively now, there has just been non-stop rain. Usually, you get rain but there will be pockets of dry weather for two or three weeks at a time to do the planting. That simply hasn’t happened. For people who got crops in the ground before mid-October, that’s fine, but for me and many others if I plant too early I get this terrible weed called black-grass and that takes over my crop.

We’ve all been caught out this year. I would imagine there will still be thousands of unplanted hectares. The difference between this year and any other is there has been no pocket of fine weather, that’s why it has been such a big problem.

Everyone is saying this is extraordinary. There have been bad years but this year has been particularly bad. You do wonder whether it is climate change throwing a curveball here because we are moving to more and more extremes. When it came to planting crops last autumn, it was fine but harvest 2022 was incredibly dry, meaning they dried up too quickly and the yields weren’t great at all. Tom Allen-Stevens, 54, farmer and agriculture journalist, Faringdon, Oxfordshire

‘There’s no sign of fields drying out soon’

The fields simply aren’t having a chance to dry out. We can’t use our tractor to cultivate, so we haven’t done any of the major plantings that are usually in the ground by now, such as main crop potatoes and onions, summer brassicas and salads. There’s no sign of them drying out soon.

Boxes of radishes at a farm in YorkshireView image in fullscreen

We can’t use the tractor because it will wreck the soil structure, which, as agroecological growers, we’re keen to preserve. Instead we’ve been focusing on our polytunnels and using this space to maximum benefit. This is a tiny area in proportion to our fields though and can’t accommodate enough food to meet the needs of our box scheme.

It’s going to have a huge impact on our business, as customers are likely to cancel their subscription if the amount of veg they receive each week is too small for too long. The “hungry gap” [a few weeks, usually falling between April and early June, when winter crops have ended but the new season’s plantings are yet to be harvested] is going to be way longer than usual. Also, we sometimes buy in from a local organic wholesaler to top up our boxes when we don’t have much of our own produce available; this will be much more expensive this year as so many big UK growers are affected.

Longer term, these unpredictable weather patterns are a worrying indicator of climate change, and confirmation of the need to entirely restructure our food system to enable genuinely sustainable production that meets the needs of local communities and is accessible for all. Rhian Williams, 31, vegetable grower at a community supported agriculture farm, Leeds

‘We still have the vast majority of our cattle inside’

Scott Maher sits on a quad bike in a farmyard surrounded by trees yet to leafView image in fullscreen

The main enterprise it has affected from our perspective is the cereals, in terms of getting them planted and also the sheep. The lambing percentage was lower, as a result [the percentage of ewes exposed to a ram per breeding period that have lambed].

It’s just been hard work. You get up in the morning and you don’t see a forecast where there is a better [weather] window. It’s quite frustrating and we have to condense a lot of our work into quite small windows at present. It’s a lot more hurried, we are working extended hours into the evenings or starting earlier in the mornings.

At the moment, we still have the vast majority of our cattle inside. We just can’t put anything out because it’s so wet. The sheep are lambing, so we are having to hold them inside until we get a dry weather window so they get stronger before we put them out.

On the cereal side, we couldn’t sow a single seed yet for spring barley until Thursday which, here in Scotland, is quite important for the whisky trade, as well as for our straw bedding for the livestock. Scott Maher, 50, mixed farmer partner, Angus, Scotland

‘If the rain stops, we then have to worry about drought – the seasons are so unpredictable now’

Elizabeth Johnson holds lambs while a collie dog jumps up her leg.View image in fullscreen

I work as a shepherd for somebody who runs an extensive grass-based system. He keeps exclusively sheep and probably has about 1,000 lambing ewes spread around a large area in the Cotswolds.

Weather is a massive factor but so much of that has been compounded by general issues that are affecting people in day-to-day life. Farming is one of the only industries where we produce things sold at wholesale but we have to pay retail prices for our input – fuel and feed, for example – which has all gone up. That’s always been an issue in the industry.

Last year, we had drought conditions during the peak grass-growing times of the year, spring and early summer. Now we have had to deal with flooding. Some of the fields are completely underwater and are basically inaccessible unless you are prepared to get very wet feet. We’ve had to spread the stock out as far as we can around the land area and keep it understocked by industry standards in order to have that margin for inclement conditions.

If it does stop raining, we then have concerns about whether there will be another drought. The weather seasons are so unpredictable now and that also brings issues of parasites, flies, more insects which we wouldn’t normally see in this country that bring disease such as bluetongue. Elizabeth Johnson, shepherd and vet student, Gloucestershire

Source: theguardian.com