dry earth drought climate change

Nine out of 14 regions in England have now been officially declared as drought zones by the Environment Agency

Growers have been bracing themselves for a fresh wave of disruption after nine out of 14 regions in England were officially declared drought zones over the past week.

The public and businesses in drought-affected areas were urged to “use water wisely” by the Environment Agency, as “the driest summer in 50 years” had left large parts of the UK tinder dry.

Following the drought announcement, water minister Steve Double insisted the UK was “better prepared than ever for periods of dry weather”.

But faced with existing challenges around soaring on-farm production costs and uncertainty over labour, the drought order was only adding to “real anxiety” across large parts of the fruit & veg sector, warned British Apples and Pears chair Ali Capper.

Despite the bouts of rain seen across some parts of the country this week, Capper’s hop and apple-growing Stocks Farm on the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border has seen only 0.2mm.

“That is just not enough,” she told The Grocer, while warning the condition of this year’s harvest would “depend on more rain this week and next” – something that was currently in doubt.

Many top fruit growers already faced difficult conditions earlier this summer, with about a third of this year’s crop of Bramley apples affected by sun scorch during July’s heatwave – where the fruit’s skin is damaged by the sun, which can lead it to rot if infested with insects.

More apples would likely have been affected by last week’s hot and sunny weather, she suggested, leading to a significant increase in produce failing to make the grade and creating more food waste.

Crop shortages expected in coming months due to water scarcity, growers warn

Spring-planted root crops nearing harvest, such as brassicas, had also been hit hard by the hot weather, said British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward, who warned winter crops planted in July, such as cauliflowers and cabbage, were also vulnerable to drought conditions.

The situation on the ground continued to be “hugely challenging across all farming sectors”, said NFU vice president David Exwood. The union cited crop fires, delayed drilling, feed shortages and failed winter crops as big drought-driven concerns.

Growers were also worried heat damage could add to the stress on next year’s crops, Capper added. She said her family farm’s harvest in 1977 was “even worse” than the one during the drought of 1976.

And while soft fruit growers weren’t as affected by field crop growers, according to British Berry Growers chair Nick Marston, he warned water supply resilience and questions over whether supplies would be sufficiently replenished over the winter was now a growing concern.

“Berry growers use drop irrigation which is more efficient and targeted, and generally have fixed sites (with table tops and tunnels) and thus investment in more secure water systems, such as winter abstraction, boreholes and water recovery off tunnel roofs feeding winter storage reservoirs,” he said.

“However, the sheer water volume demand in very hot conditions to keep crops fruiting has meant issues on some sites and farms where volume of supply is limited by infrastructure.”

This could ultimately lead to crop losses and thus “enormous financial implications for those growers affected”, he warned. His comments were echoed by Ward, who said “more can be done” to capture winter rainfall.

Labour crisis has created £60m-worth of crop losses this year, says NFU

Meanwhile, the NFU’s Exwood said the weather over the past six months had “highlighted the urgent need for government to take our national food production and resilience seriously by ensuring all departments across Whitehall give due regard to the impact of environmental policies on the country’s ability to produce food.”

Its agencies should also “manage the nation’s water resources more effectively so we’re able to store and move water in times of plenty for use when there is scarcity”, Exwood added.

It comes as Defra this week announced support for farmers with new rounds of funding towards its water management grant – for investment in on-farm water infrastructure.

The department has also introduced easements to some agri-environment schemes until the end of the year, such as allowing farmers to cut or grazing reserved areas of land to help ease shortages of bedding, fodder, grazing or forage crops.

However, Ward noted that given the increasing volatility of the UK’s weather it was “difficult trying to pick which weather event you are trying to safeguard against”.