The threat of a second summer drought is forcing farmers to rearrange their crops

Andrew Blenkiron ist Direktor des Anwesens Euston in der Nähe von Thetford und Vorsitzender der Zweigstelle der National Farmers' Union in Suffolk – Bild: Newsquest <i>(Image: Newsquest)</i>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/″ data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ “/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Andrew Blenkiron is director of the Euston Estate near Thetford and chairman of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union – Image: Newsquest (Image: Newsquest)

In response to the growing threat of a second summer drought, East Anglian farmers are cutting back on “high risk” irrigated crops like potatoes, onions and carrots this year.

The region is one of only two in the country still officially in a state of drought – six months after last summer’s heatwave left farmers struggling to plant crops in parched fields.

Despite some much-needed winter rains, the driest February since 1959 has left rivers, groundwater supplies and water levels at worryingly low levels.

The latest summary from the National Hydrological Monitoring Program says that although the unsettled March weather has rewetted soils in East Anglia, “unusually sustained rains will be required in the coming months” to avoid summer “water resource pressures”.

And that looming threat has prompted farmers to grow less thirsty crops, like potatoes, where retail prices no longer justify the rising risks.

North Norfolk grower Tony Bambridge, chairman of the National Farmers’ Union regional executive for East Anglia, is reducing his potato acreage by about 10 per cent, replacing it with less risky sugar beets, prices of which have risen in recent years.

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk potato grower Tony Bambridge, Chairman of the National Farmers’ Union Regional Executive for East Anglia – Image: NFU

Norfolk potato grower Tony Bambridge is Chairman of the National Farmers’ Union Regional Executive for East Anglia – Image: NFU (Image: NFU)

But he said the reduction will only apply to the retail portion of his crop as processing customers like McCain and Bird’s Eye have worked to rebalance risk and reward.

“We’re going to have to ration water this year,” he said.

“Even where that is uncertain, we have to assume that we have less water, so we reduce our potato area and say that we cannot irrigate other crops like we have been able to do with malting barley.

“We made the decision to cut because we couldn’t see how we could get enough value out of retailers for the product we’re growing.

“For example, we have not cut our McCain crop because they have been very responsible, they recognize farmers’ problems with fertilizer and energy cost inflation and are doing something positive to help us with this challenge.

“But I don’t think help has come from all sides. So farmers have to make decisions about what they will do to recoup those costs and turn a profit.

“Unfortunately, this means that farmers will be phased out of these high-risk products.”

Eastern Daily Press: Farmers brace for possibility of second straight summer of drought - Image: Newsquest

Eastern Daily Press: Farmers brace for possibility of second straight summer of drought – Image: Newsquest

Farmers brace for the possibility of a second straight summer of drought – Image: Newsquest (Image: Newsquest)

Andrew Blenkiron is director of the Euston Estate, near Thetford, where the area planted with irrigated potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips has been reduced by 20 per cent and replaced with sugar beet.

Despite winter withdrawal from rivers, the estate’s two reservoirs are still not full and only 6mm of rain fell in February compared to an average of 30-50mm.

“Everything is pointing to a potentially low outlook for irrigation in the coming season and everyone is starting to grapple with that now,” Mr Blenkiron said.

“It was a pretty easy decision to reduce irrigated crops – and we’re not alone in that decision as the costs of energy, tractor fuel and fertilizer have skyrocketed.

“We completely exhausted our reservoirs and our groundwater drilling licenses last year and it cost £230,000 of energy just to pump water around – three times more than usual.

“Why continue to take the risk with no prospect of return?”

As other growers make similar decisions, Mr Blenkiron said potato shortages are a possibility.

“There could potentially be supply issues if we move up this time next year and we don’t have the same potatoes and onions in stock,” he said. “But if we get a really good year and yields go up 10-20 percent, then that goes away.

“It all depends on the weather and the available water supplies.”

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