17 November 2000

KICK FROM NATURE BRINGS FLOOD CHAOS

John Robinson and Michael Fordham count themselves

lucky. Relatively. The floods have not taken their loved ones

or wrecked their homes. But the water has caused chaos

on their farms. Tim Relf visits the two men in East Sussex

THIS is our best field of wheat," says John Robinson, pointing to a lake on his right.

We drive a little farther along a partly-submerged track. "And that, thats a field of…" He pauses, thinking, because its not obvious. "Rape."

Johns no stranger to flooding. It happens every few years at Iford Farm. But this year is different. There is far more water than usual, and it has come far earlier than usual. Usually, Januarys the wet time. "But if it happens then, the crops are established, they will put up with a lot."

This season, rain has fallen relentlessly since mid-Sept-ember. Some reports recorded 30cm(12in) of rain in October. On Oct 11 alone, 7.5cm (3in) fell in some areas.

The river in nearby Lewes burst its banks, the bypass acted like a dam and water poured through the underpass on to Iford Farm. And it has sat there ever since. "It is like a big basin."

The flood water began receding, but a second bout of heavy rain came and it rose again. "I have given up saying it cant get any worse. Every time I say that, it does."

About 50ha (130 acres) of grassland has been hit, prompting worries about next winters silage supplies for the 360-head dairy herd. Whole-crop cereals might then have to be used for silage, leaving less saleable cereals.

"The grass is my biggest worry; I just dont know how long it will survive under that amount of water."

&#42 Cereals worry

Getting cereals sown is also a worry and John reckons he might end up putting it into set-aside. Some ground had, at the time of Farmlifes visit, been under water for more than five weeks. "If it stops raining today, it will take another two weeks for the water to go. What we must not do is get in a panic."

But John is trying to remain optimistic. "Provided the grass copes, we will survive," he says. "The older you get, the more philosophical you become. I used to worry a lot about the weather. The older you get, the more you realise you cant do anything about it."

And compared with the devastation the floods have wrecked on homes nearby, he knows it could have been a lot worse. "We were very lucky," he says.

But then, as if in testimony to the anguish caused by the sight of water-filled fields, he adds: "I try not to look at it."

As John surveys his land, not too far away Michael Fordham is doing some costings.

Sitting in the living room of his farmhouse at Little Horsted – yes, its raining outside – he gives the best-case scenario first. If he puts his arable land into spring crops, with the minimum set-aside, that will result in a 500-600t shortfall of grain next harvest compared with this year. Which equates to about £30,000 less revenue.

The worse-case scenario, meanwhile, is putting 50% of the land into set-aside. Which could mean a £60,000 loss of income.

It started raining in mid-September and, in the eight weeks that followed, there were no two consecutive dry days here. Michael has watched a nearby stream flood the road three times so far in 2000. Three times. It has only done that three other times in living memory: once in the 1960s, once in the 1970s and once in the 1990s.

Fields have been rendered impassable to machinery. "We cant physically get on it. The worry now is that we are fast running out of days," says Michael.

There are not many farmers in the locality who have done a lot of arable work. "My figures will be fairly typical. It will be difficult for a lot of people to claw their way out of this one."

&#42 Frustrating business

There have been jobs to do like cutting hedges and clearing gutters. "But not the jobs we want to do." Its a frustrating business. "Every time I go in the machinery shed, I see 35t of seed corn. The tractors havent moved for eight weeks.

"We dont mind taking it on the chin, but it has come against a backdrop of falling incomes and falling profits."

Normally farmers can cope with the weather, says Michael. But this has come on top of the low prices. It just means more doom and gloom.

"Nature has given us one last kick."