How are farmers coping with the devastating drought that has hit many parts of Britain? Is simply not planting crops one option?
It’s been described as the worst drought for a generation, with few counties from the Midlands down to Kent escaping unscathed. The situation is so severe that environment minister Caroline Spelman hosted a hastily arranged ‘drought summit’ this week, bringing together farmers, water companies, the Environment Agency and Defra to discuss what’s being done to tackle the issue and decide on actions to mitigate the impact in the future.
Following the summit, Spelman called on the whole country to find ways to save water. “It is not just the responsibility of government, water companies and businesses to act,” she argued. “We are asking for the help of everyone by urging them to use less water, and to start now.”
The good news is that as far as one group goes - the UK’s farmers - she was preaching to the converted.
Having seen the crisis coming, growers have implemented two very different pre-emptive strategies, the most dramatic of which has been to radically change the way they plant. Some farmers have switched to shorter season crops and others have significantly reduced the amount they plant - indeed, one farmer told the NFU he was going to plant 20% fewer root and vegetable crops this year, taking a £50,000 hit.
But while it makes sense to only plant what you know you can feasibly water, reducing crop sizes carries significant risks, warns farming consultant Lindsay Hargeaves. “Some farmers are saying, if I haven’t got water, there’s no point planting,” he says. “However, if they don’t plant, the customer might not be there next year, so some are taking the position that if they plant at least they stand a chance.”
Among these, a second approach has been gaining traction: how to better control or reduce their water supplies through the introduction of cutting-edge technology that allows them to generate more crop per drop or the creation of water capture systems and on-site reservoirs.
The latter strategy has served G’s Fresh well, says marketing director Anthony Gardiner. “We are OK for water as we have undertaken a substantial reservoir building programme over the past 10 years that has left us in the position that we have enough water in our reservoirs to irrigate our crops for up to 12 weeks in summer,” he says.
It’s not just farmers who are innovating - vegetable processing companies are also stepping up to the plate. Take potato supplier Greenvale AP. It’s developed a root vegetable washing system that it claims has the potential to save the UK food processing industry up to 80% of the water it uses every year, and a ‘mini sprinkler system’ that delivers more accurate irrigation and cuts water usage.
However, such initiatives are a drop in the ocean when you consider the scale of the situation facing UK growers, with vast swathes of the country in drought and little sign of reservoirs recharging in time for the 2013 growing season.
Next month, the Environment Agency will publish a drought update and set out actions that farmers should implement. Praying for rain won’t be on the list but it doesn’t need to be. As one source says without a hint of irony: “Some farmers are going to church much more often these days.”
Unfortunately, with Anglia suffering its driest five-month period in history and the Midlands and South East experiencing below-average rainfall, their prayers seem to be falling on deaf ears.