One topic will dominate every conversation at Cereals next week. It will, of course, be the ongoing drought that is decimating cereal crops across the main arable areas of the country.
Several weeks ago I suggested it would be the story of the year. Little did I realise it would be as serious as it has become. And there still seems little prospect, according to forecasters, of substantial rain in the foreseeable future.
OK, there was some rain over the Spring Bank Holiday and it perked things up for a few days. Here on this farm, we had just under 7mm – which virtually doubled what we’d had since the beginning of March. As I write, the dust is blowing again and crops are hanging their heads like they were before the holiday.
The sugar beet and the combining peas look better than they deserve to under the circumstances. But how much longer they can survive without significant rain is anyone’s guess. I can only suppose roots have gone down a metre or two to find whatever life-sustaining moisture remains in the clay subsoil.
The early-drilled winter wheats have also withstood the conditions better than might have been expected, despite being starved of top dressing, applied but not washed into the soil. But those drilled late, after sugar beet had been lifted, failed to established good root structures before the drought hit and they look awful. They are thin, most tillers having failed or died, and coming into ear at about half the height they should do. It will be a real challenge getting the much-reduced crop on to the combine header. And this won’t be the year to buy straw by the acre.
The other major concern, faced with much reduced yield prospects, is whether we’ve made more forward sales than we will harvest and be able to deliver. We stopped selling when we reached about half the tonnage we budgeted for last autumn because we could see potential yield disappearing before our eyes. But I know of some farmers who, tempted by the high prices earlier in the year, sold almost up to their usual average yield. They could be in big trouble.
Moreover, some in that position are already negotiating to repurchase forward contracts at current prices, paying the difference between the price at which they first sold in the hope of making enough to cover their losses on future sales that they believe, because of the growing shortage, will be made at even higher prices. Whether such calculations will stand up now Russia has announced the end of its export ban is anyone’s guess. But the desire to avoid margin calls and even bigger losses is understandable.
To make you even more miserable, I read the other day that a climatologist at Southampton University, Prof Blackwood, is predicting 40 years of dry springs and summers in this country. He believes the Gulf Stream has shifted and that the conditions we are now experiencing will become the norm. Let us hope he’s wrong.
In the meantime, other parts of the world are also suffering from freak weather. Most of the USA is either too wet or too dry. Much of Europe has a drought similar to ours. And in central China 34 million people are threatened with starvation, almost five million of whom are about to run out of water.
Oxfam’s recent forecast that food prices will double by 2030 could be overtaken by such events much sooner than that.
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