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Crops rotting in Sussex fields
5:50pm Friday 19th October 2012 in News
By Ben Leo and Kimberly Middleton
Last week, The Argus revealed how Sussex-based sparkling wine producer Nyetimber had scrapped this year’s vintage due to this year’s unprecedented weather conditions.
Some £10 million of fine wine has been poured down the drain.
Now it has emerged honey and apple farmers across the county are also facing the devastating consequences of the months of rain, alongside wheat and spring barley cultivators.
Some apple yields are down 80% on last year, leaving fruit farmers worried about the financial future and whether next year’s harvest could be their last.
Vikki Chalke, manager of the farm shop at Perryhill Orchards in Hartfield, said: “We are down 75 to 80% on apples for previous years.
“We’ve not had that much fruit in general because when the trees are in blossom, we were hit by heavy winds and frost.
“If you get those conditions before the fruit is set, you lose the fruit. We’ve got far less than normal. It’s disappointing but there’s nothing you can do.”
Recognising the poor quality of the produce as farmers struggle in the wet weather, Waitrose is selling sub-standard fruit and vegetables at knockdown prices.
Low honey stock
Honey is at an all-time low in Sussex, with some bee farmers saying it’s the worst season in decades.
A wet and cold start to the summer has kept bees in their hives, meaning some colonies have been killed off or are very weak.
And without bees out to pollinate, rapeseed and bean crops are also desperately poor.
After having “probably one of the best rapeseed yields ever” last year, Hugh Passmore, who farms 850 acres near Coombes, said this year the crop has been one of the worst.
He is blaming the lack of sunshine for the fact his sheep and cows are much smaller and leaner this year.
David Taylor, whose family has farmed 900 acres on the South Downs since 1937, has 15 per cent less crops wheat, rapeseed and barely this year and the problems are already extending into next year.
His wheat is used to make biscuits.
He said: “We are struggling to plant because the soil is so wet and what has been sown is being eaten by slugs. One 40 acre field will have to re-seed in the spring because it has been eaten by slugs.”
Low wheat yield
Guy Gagen, chief crops adviser at the National Farmers Union, said results had been mixed across the main arable crops in 2012, and the average results hide extreme variations across the country.
Mr Gagen said: “Much of the 2013 rapeseed crop is now planted and up, and farmers will be looking for further breaks in the weather to complete winter cereal crop planting. I’d like to thank all those growers who responded to the survey and to GrainSafe for providing two automatic grain temperature monitors.
“However, we have seen a relatively low wheat yield this year, below seven tonnes per hectare. This is something not seen in the UK since the late 1980s. The abnormally high rainfall across the UK since early summer this year has depressed wheat yield.
“Without considerable investment by our farmers in recent years, the results for wheat could have been much worse this harvest.
“Investments in grain drying and handling facilities have been vital, while improved combine harvester capacity meant significant progress was made when breaks in the weather allowed.”
Despite the doom and gloom for some farmers, others have emerged from the summer weather crisis relatively unaffected. Certain crops have even had a better harvest than previous years.
Miles Jenner, from Harveys Brewery in Lewes, said: “We’ve not really had anything to worry about in terms of crops this year.
"Our maltsters and hop growers haven’t recorded anything especially bad. Although I do feel for the farmers who have had to sacrifice some or all of their harvest this year. It’s awful.”
Price of a pint
Rapeseed Oil yields are up 5.9% on a five year average, from 3.4 to 3.6 tonnes per hectare – with production up 25.5%. Winter Barley has also had an efficient year in production.
Yields are up 1.6% on a five year average, from 6.3 tonnes to 6.4 tonnes per hectare. An estimated production total on a five year average is up 0.6%.
Colin West, Executive Director of the Maltsters Association of Great Britain, said there was enough good quality barley to supply maltsters from this year’s crop and in turn for them to supply brewers with malt. Quantity and quality will be managed and will not be a problem.
He said: “Where poor yields do impact is on price – although global factors come into play as well. The UK base cost of barley will be affected by the global prices of maize, wheat and barley. There will then be an overlay of our local supply effect. Converted through to the price of a pint, the impact is probably a fraction of a penny.”
A spokesperson from the National Farmers Union said: “The NFU 2012 harvest survey revealed that other major arable crops grown in the UK have performed well in difficult conditions, although without the investment made in technology by farmers the wheat harvest could have been much worse.”
Soft fruits like strawberries and berries have come out of the summer relatively unscathed thanks to protective precautions like mats and fleeces. Tree fruits however have been hit especially hard as they are more exposed to the elements.
When the crops are down...
Tony Eales, of Tendring Fruit Farm in Halisham said his apples were in blossom at the same time as the wet, windy and cold weather – meaning they didn’t set.
He is now left with a worryingly low crop count.
He said: “I am 75 percent down on my normal stock figures on Cox and Cox related apples like Bramley. I’m left with 25 percent of OK apples, which aren’t weather damaged.
"The situation is affecting us seriously financially. If the apples flower when the weather is bad then you get hardly anything. It’s the same for all agricultural farmers and It’s concerning.
"There’s nothing we can do to try and prevent this happening again, it’s nature. All we can do is hope and pray for a better turn out next year.”
Ben Pratt, from Honey and Wax Products at The Retreat in Hailsham, said he fears a knock-on effect next year if the colonies are too weak to build themselves up over the winter.
He added: “There have been a lot of colony deaths over the summer because of the conditions. It means in the spring instead of managing the colonies to produce honey, I’m managing them so I can divide them to make up some of the losses.
"It’s been a fairly depressing year and it’s the worst crop I’ve had in 30 years.”
Mr Pratt, who also sells bee keeping equipment, said sales of bee keeping products have dropped dramatically.
He continued: “People aren’t buying as much because they know what an awful season it’s been. It’s not just the lack of honey.
"Ultimately it has a consequence on income. We just look forward to next year and hope it will be better.”
John Archer, Land Use Advisor for the South East Region NFU, said: “The weather has been unprecedented. We started the year being dry with drought conditions, and then all of a sudden we had more rain than we’ve ever seen before in the summer.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen groundwater recharged in the summer. Wheat harvest is about 15% down on what it normally is on average across the country, although some farmers have reported a loss of 30-40 percent.
Some parts of next year they’ll find they can’t drill the next year’s spring crops because the ground is too wet
“There’s no support for farmers, they won’t insure crops against weather damage. It’s always been a case of the farmers live with the weather and they have good years and bad years. The hope is that the good years exceed the bad ones.
“This has been a particularly bad year and the danger is if we see this occurring more frequently, it’s going to be financially severe for them. It’s a case of looking forward to next year and getting on with it.”
Pete Dutton, West Sussex NFU chairman and dairy farmer at Woodwards Farm near Haywards Heath, said: “We’re just getting the maize in and we’re about 40% down – it’s fairly disastrous. Maize hates the wet weather.
“You also get a lot of diseases when it’s that wet, which normally you would be able to spray, but we just couldn’t get on there to do it because it was so wet, so it’s been a bit of a double whammy.
“We’re harvesting what we can but it’s a bit of a struggle to be honest because it’s still so wet out there. We’ve had to abandon one field because we just keep getting stuck – all the machinery was sinking.
“With such a low yield we’re going to have to buy in some extra feed, it’s going to be an expensive winter.
“But, thank God, the milk price has been put back up – otherwise there wouldn’t have been a dairy farmer left in the country.”
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