8 December 2000

Worst autumn ever hits growers where it hurts

By Andrew Blake

FEARS are rising that the wettest weather in more than two centuries has already washed away much of next years UK cereal harvest.

Experts suggest a 10-11m tonne wheat crop, 25% down on this year.

Even optimists say only half this autumns crops are expected to give of their best, and there is concern that many later sown crops may not survive continued soaking.

"It will have huge implications for farm profitability," says NFU cereals committee chairman, Richard Butler. With sprayers unable to get on sodden land, the potential of many crops is already dramatically reduced. Untreated blackgrass and BYDV could cut yields by one-third, he says.

With area aid for set-aside now no different to that for cereals, the NFU hopes MAFF will relax the rules to offer maximum flexibility to farmers with flood-hit crops and those unable to establish required green covers, says Mr Butler.

"It is a crisis for arable farmers," agrees Chris Monk, head of Strutt and Parkers farming department. "In the past week to 10 days it has become totally depressing. Many people now cannot realistically expect a sowing window until February. I should think we will end up with a wheat crop of only 10-11m tonnes." This years MAFF estimate is over 16m tonnes.

David Bolton of consultants Andersons agrees. "I think we could be looking at a reduction of 25%. I am appalled at the number of bare brown fields about and the amount of potatoes and sugar beet still in the ground. It has never been this bad in my recollection."

In the east midlands, 30% of the planned wheat and barley area is still unsown, says David Parish of ADAS. "It has never been as bad as this. In the current economic climate growers need every acre to perform to its full potential.

"Only 50% went in in reasonable conditions and only 10% of that has been sprayed." Uncontrolled BYDV and blackgrass could slash yield and leave an expensive legacy for years to come.

Biggest concern is for the 20% of later sowings and anything which might still go in should a dry January window permit, says Mr Parish. "We have to assume they will only do three-quarters of their yield potential. So the most we are looking at is a total of 14m tonnes of wheat.

Farms which have trimmed staff and machinery to the bone cannot be blamed for finding themselves stretched, he adds. "Rightly they have planned for the worst year in 10, not the worst in 233."

In the west, the picture is even gloomier, says ADASs Haydn Williams. As much as 40% of the wheat in the ground went in late. "The big debate is about how much of this will survive. We are already coming across rotting seed."

In Devon and Cornwall 10% is an over-estimate of winter cereal sownings, says colleague Bill Butler. &#42

How much wetter can it get? With drilling at a halt experts believe wheat output could slump below 11m tonnes next harvest.

CEREALSWASH-OUT

&#8226 Only half planned wheat drilled well.

&#8226 Later sowings survival in doubt.

&#8226 Wheat harvest 10-14m tonnes.

&#8226 NFU hope for set-aside rules relaxation.

Met Office figures confirm the worst

Met Office figures confirm it has been the wettest autumn across England and Wales since records began in 1766. At 489mm (19.3in) the total for September, October and November 2000 is nearly double the 30 year average of 252mm (9.9in) and over half the annual average of 895mm (35in). Only the north of Scotland has had a near normal autumn. East Sussex has been worst hit, soaked by 226mm (8.9in) in the three months, almost two-and-a-half times more than the norm and the biggest increase over the average for any UK county.