By Farmers Weekly staff

POTATO and vegetable growers in the West Midlands are resisting a 100% increase in canal water abstraction charges.

Under new five-year contracts offered to spray irrigators by British Waterways, the standing charge for several farmers will rise from 63 to 120/1000m3 by 2006. The volumetric charge will also increase from 93 to 180/Ml.

David Tipton, Hockerhill Farm, Brewood, Stafford, grows 109ha (270 acres) of potatoes on his own land and through share farming agreements on other units.

His water abstraction bill will rise to 30,000 a year and he believes crop profitability cannot sustain such an increase.

Growers are in a very difficult position, because seed for planting in March is being sprouted and plans are in hand for 2001, says Mr Tipton.

Mr Tipton concedes that the contract now on offer is far better than the original one.

Increases have been scaled down and there is more emphasis on the volume used rather than on the up-front standing charge. It also allows growers to opt out if they give 12-months notice.

And, since the rise in the first two years of new contracts starting on 1 April is fairly modest, he could sign and use a get-out option, but that would put him out of potato growing.

I believe that the planned increases in charges are still unreasonable.

“If all growers refused to sign, British Waterways would have to think again.

Derek Loweth, NFU group secretary for south-east Staffordshire, negotiated the revised contract on behalf of 20 members.

He says British Waterways appears unwilling to make further concessions.

The increase in 2000 is 3% and there is a break clause allowing farmers to quit on three months notice.

“After that they can give a years notice so there is some flexibility, says Mr Loweth, who is prepared to try to negotiate the very steep rise in charges after 2001.

John Taylor, British Waterways water development manger, says numerous written and verbal representations from customers and the NFU had been considered when drafting the new agreement.