OPINION: David Richardson on crops

As I waited for the start of the game between Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion – the Canaries’ last home game of the season – I couldn’t help comparing the position in which the home team found itself with that back on the farm.

Norwich had endured a dire few months and suffered a virtual goal drought with hardly any wins. The game that was about to start was crucial to their survival in the Premiership. If they lost, or even drew, they would risk relegation. Their performance had to be first class. But even if they delivered a corker, their fate would depend on events outside their control – on results achieved by other teams at the bottom of the League.

Back home, the situation was just as serious. In all my years on this farm I have never seen as much bare land in the middle of May. Some of it wasn’t totally bare – it looked that way because the sugar beet seedlings just emerging were too small to see from the road. Indeed, some of those that could be seen were of dubious vigour, with corkscrew roots and floppy leaves. Was it the result of the April winds, the cold wet clay beneath the now-dried-out topsoil, or faulty seed? The jury is still out.

But some of that bare land around the countryside really was as it was where oilseed rape had either failed or been grazed off level by pigeons and slugs. In some cases, alternate crops had been drilled in the hope of salvaging something from the year’s work. Most have yet to emerge. In other fields, the farmers in charge had presumably decided not to spend more good money after bad. The cost of seed for those alternative crops was, after all, prohibitive.

My recent travels have not taken me far beyond the south and east of England, but I have been told by colleagues in other parts that in some areas the state of crops and grass growth is worse than it is here.

For what it’s worth, my observations and local knowledge of the East suggest that the worst-looking crops are on those farms where soil structure was ruined by harvesting crops of potatoes and sugar beet from saturated land. The best-looking winter wheats and barleys are on those farms that gave up growing such crops a few years ago and were able to finish autumn sowings in September, before the heaviest rain and floods.

Indeed, it is significant that Shropshire farmers, who were upset a few years ago, when British Sugar closed its processing factories in the area, denying them the chance to continue growing the crop, are now saying it was the best thing that could have happened. No longer do they have to battle to lift beet out of muddy fields. They can concentrate on crops that are kinder to the soil and can produce better yields and make more money from them.

British Sugar is belatedly realising such stories put its future supplies at risk and recently relaxed quota conditions previously tied to an additional £1.50/t for this year’s crop. Despite that, morale among sugar beet growers is at an all-time low and it is doubtful that this will be enough to secure the future tonnages the processor says it needs.

Back to the football. Norwich played a blinder and beat West Bromwich Albion 4-0, avoiding relegation. I only hope we can do the same on the farm.

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

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