David Richardson: We need some rain

About three weeks ago I wrote a blog post complaining of lack of rain in Norfolk.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land in partnership with his wife, Lorna, and his son, Rob, near Norwich in Norfolk. 

I was concerned at the slow germination of spring-sown crops, nitrogen applied, but not washed into the soil, and winter cereals not looking as good as they should. We usually get a downpour immediately after I’ve written something like that. But this time it didn’t work.*

In recent weeks we’ve had a few showers, the heaviest of which delivered 16mm of rain. It must have done some good, but previous minimal precipitations disappeared without trace into dust-dry soil. As I write it’s trying to rain again, but the forecast suggests a few millimetres rather than the thorough soaking crops desperately need.

For weeks spring crops, like sugar beet and oilseed rape, have hardly grown. There are large areas of heavy land that was “cobbly” when drilled where plants have still not emerged – either because of insufficient rain or because they have shot and died for want of moisture. Winter cereals visibly dehydrated in the brisk easterly winds that blew for days. And my lawn, which I managed to get mown the other day, looks as brown as it usually does in July, not green as it should in May.

In short, yield prospects for many crops seem pretty grim. Even if we get a cloudburst in the next few days it may be too late. Traders have observed what’s going on and although in this country the drought effects are limited to the south and east, forward prices have risen significantly. It’s a classic weather market and who knows how far it will go or how much rain it will take to slow it?

But other factors also influence prices. Currency fluctuations have caused jitters and created intermittent demand from investors who are also watching the price of crude oil rise to about $60/barrel. It may be that soft commodities will once again be targeted by institutions as they look for relatively safe havens for the funds they have to invest.

In the USA and Canada, says the HGCA, there have been concerns at significant delays in planting spring wheat because land has been too wet. This has pushed up futures prices on the Chicago Board of Trade by 6% to £135/t. In London LIFFE futures followed suit and rose £4.50/t for November 2009 and £3.50/t for November 2010. This has also driven the spot market.

Further ahead, plantings of wheat in Argentina this year seem likely to be down 18.5% to the lowest area ever recorded because of a combination of dry weather and tight credit. And stocks of both wheat and canola (OSR) in Canada are both said to be down.

Amid this uncertainty, compounded in this country by the Met Office forecast of a long, hot summer, politicians are beginning to talk of the need to increase food production. Hilary Benn mentioned it in a speech at the RSPB‘s party at the House of Lords the other day. Jane Kennedy repeated it a few days later.

Demand for food was set to increase, they said, and it would be necessary for farmers to produce more. Yes, we must do it sustainably, but we need have no problem with that. Integrated farming, as advocated by LEAF, shows us how. Are political leaders (between filling in their expenses claims) realising that what some of us have been saying for years was right all along?

Read David Richardson’s blog, David’s Digest