Farmers rained out
If David and Stuart Piccaver look a bit shell-shocked, it’s hardly surprising. For the past six months, they’ve been engaged in trench warfare.
The father and son team run the 1,500-acre family farm near Holbeach, in Lincolnshire, and since March they’ve been in a state of almost constant siege – from the British weather.
Yes, while drought-stricken American farmers have been praying for rain, with 35 states declaring themselves disaster areas, we Brits have found the heavens to be open all hours of the day, in what is set to be one of the wettest summers on record.
The combination is expected to send food prices soaring for the average shopper in the coming months.
“One Friday, we had 70 millimetres of rain,” sighs David, 68, gazing at his depleted, wispy expanse of salad onions, scarred by what looks like a large, dried-up riverbed running through their middle.
“At one point, this whole field was a two-acre lake. Half of us were pumping out water into waiting tankers, while the other half were digging this emergency channel in order to drain away the surface water.
The work had to be done against the clock, too, because if you leave a crop in water, it’ll be dead within 24 hours.
“Even after all of that, this field will yield only a third of what it’s meant to. Already, you can see the tops of the leaves going yellow with mildew.”
The rest of the growing season hasn’t been any better, according to his son Stuart, 41.
On a good year, the Piccavers and their 60 full-time staff produce countless lorryloads of shiny, green and red salad leaves: everything from romaine lettuces to endives, from lollo rosso to radicchio (annual turnover, £15 million).
But this hasn’t been a good year – in fact, it’s the worst the family can recall in the 90 years they’ve been here.
“Things got off to a bad start in late April and early May,” says Stuart. “It was so cold and wet, we had two and a half weeks in which we didn’t plant at all. Prior to that, the longest-ever delay had been five days.
“It’s not just that hail shreds our leaves and flooding wipes out our plants. Heavy rain makes the soil wet and mushy when we’re planting, but when the earth dries out, the soil sets like rock, and the roots of our lettuces don’t have the strength to break through and penetrate downwards.
“It’s been painful for all concerned. This year will have cost us getting on for £750,000 in lost revenue.”
It’s a similarly soggy tale of woe at brassica mega-farm Lincolnshire Field Products, half a dozen miles away, in Wykeham.
“We’ll have lost £500,000, which could turn into £1 million, depending on how the next six months go,” sighs managing director Martin Tate.
“We had drought conditions in March and April, and then from the end of April to June we had more rain than we’ve ever witnessed.
“The crop that’s worrying us most is the brussels sprouts. We should have started harvesting them already, but they’ve been so stressed and are still so small that we won’t be able to begin until mid-September, which means four weeks’ lost production.”
There is no question about how undeveloped these sprout-lets are, either.
A trip into the fields reveals them to be the size of peas, rather than golf balls; the leaves and stalks are shin-high when they should be thigh-high.
Everywhere you go in this part of Lincolnshire and the Wash, you hear farmers engaging not just in standard, low-level bucolic grumbling, but in altogether shriller cries of distress.
And it is the same all around the country.
“The rain has had a catastrophic effect,” laments Huw Griffiths, marketing director of Hampshire-based salad giants Vitacress (which boast 27 types of salad leaves, 500 staff and a turnover of £50 million).
“By the time we got going in August, we should already have produced one and a half or two crops. Our output is down 30 per cent. The only good news is watercress, which absolutely loves the rain.”
Not so garden peas, one of the first names on this year’s agricultural casualty list.
“They’ve suffered terribly from foot rot, caused by trailing in the water,” says James Hallett, chief executive of the British Growers Association.
“They’re 30 per cent down. And as for asparagus, the season has been a disaster.”
And it seems that what little sunlight the British summer has produced has been the wrong kind.
“It came too early, in March,” complains Clive Edmed, one of the largest fruit growers in Kent.
“As a result, the apple trees went into blossom too soon, at which point the rain came, and blossom stayed too long, with the inevitable result that disease arrived.
We’ve had to spend twice as much on chemicals as in previous years, just to eradicate scab, which takes the form of dark marks on the skin, and which the supermarkets won’t accept.
“Then there’s the blackcurrants. First, it was so wet that one variety got weighed down in the mud and developed mould.
Then we put in a different variety, and lo and behold, July turned out to be scorching hot, and those blackcurrants all cooked on the bush. Total amount of fruit we’ve lost this year? Around five or six tons.”
It’s not just farmers in the great outdoors who have suffered, either. You might think that rain wouldn’t affect plants cultivated in greenhouses, but even they have been hit by the weather.
Not because of all the rain, but because of the leadenness of the skies.
“Our measurements show that because of the grey, overcast skies, tomatoes in this country have been exposed to 10 per cent less light than they would in a normal year,” says Dr Phil Morley, technical officer of the British Tomato Growers Association.
“And translated into production, 10 per cent less light means 10 per cent less yield. Basically, tomatoes are like humans: they get miserable if the sun doesn’t come out.”
However, one affliction from which the tomatoes have been spared is that of attack from pests and disease.
This is thanks to the armies of tiny predators working on the farmers’ behalf, who can be ordered in bulk from specialist suppliers.
These include a mini-wasp, just two millimetres long, called Encarsia formosa, which likes nothing better than a lunch of whitefly. Not forgetting a midge by the name of aphidoletes, whose larvae are particularly partial to the taste of aphids.
Nevertheless, despite the efforts of this winged security force, tomato numbers are down this year, the inevitable result being price rises in the shops.
According to market analysis firm Mintec, the cost of homegrown salad tomatoes has increased by 45 per cent since last year, while the price of plum tomatoes has gone up by a third.
To their credit, though, the nation’s growers are fighting back. Far from crumpling like a limp lettuce, the British Leafy Salads Association has looked for ways to remove the bad taste left in the mouth by rising prices.
“Farmers have been taking active measures to counter the wet conditions, by growing crops on raised salad beds, and by building up organic matter in the soil, so that it can take more water and rain,” declares the BLSA’s upbeat chairman Colin Bloomfield, directing me to the association’s let’s-hear it-for-lettuce website, www.makemoreofsalad.com
The fact remains, though, that, as well as the increased meat and bread prices caused by drought in the US, we UK shoppers are going to have to swallow higher fruit-and-veg bills, because of our homegrown downpours.
“Let’s face it, there are three links in this chain,” says Stuart Piccaver.
“There are the growers, the retailers and the general public. It’s only fair that all three should share the pain.”
And no doubt we will. In the meantime, though, the nation’s rain-drenched farmers are left to count their losses, dry out their socks, and keep an eye peeled for red skies at night and their attendant delights.
“We have an old saying in farming,” says Clive Edmed cheerily. “Next year will be better.” Perhaps it’s a saying the rest of us should adopt, to telegraph.
Farming News Daily Supporting British Pig Farmers
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.