OPINION: Rain threatens farm soil structure

Have you heard the Met Office is forecasting a drought in May and June?” asked a friend as we sheltered from yet another rainstorm. I think he was joking. Not that there’s much to joke about in the weather we’ve been having.

I’ve heard forecasts of a different kind recently that contain even more of the ring of truth. A banker said: “There’s a cashflow crisis looming by the middle of the year as the effects of lower yields last harvest, combined with the drop in grain prices, impact bank accounts. If you haven’t calculated what extra credit you need to take you through to the autumn, I suggest you do so as a matter of urgency.”

A farm management consultant said: “Farm input costs are increasing at 3% per year while general inflation is coming down along with unemployment. That means interest rates based on the half of one percent crisis levels are almost certain to rise in the foreseeable future, which will squeeze profitability for borrowers.”

An international grain trader said: “Global grain production looks like being up this year with successful crops being grown in almost every major producing region. Carryover stocks are likely to be higher than for years and, short of a big disaster somewhere in the world, prospects for a significant increase in value this crop year seem remote. Indeed, prices may be forced lower.” A few days later, wheat futures went up by between £3/t and £5/t, but I suspect that would not be classed as significant in his terms.

“An even bigger imponderable is how much damage has been done to the majority of land across the UK that has not been inundated – merely waterlogged for weeks on end.”
David Richardson

Then again there’s the rain. The fact the government has committed £10m to helping farmers whose land has been flooded for months will come as some relief to them. Had that promise not been made, their prospects would have been catastrophic. Any crops or grass under water has been written off and livestock losses have yet to be calculated but will be huge and could go on for some time. And that takes no account of the domestic upheaval those communities have endured. Hopefully they will receive enough aid from the emergency funds to enable them to continue in business.

An even bigger imponderable is how much damage has been done to the majority of land across the UK that has not been inundated – merely waterlogged for weeks on end. Inevitably, soluble nutrients will have leached away and will have to be replaced to optimise future production. It seems likely, however, that soil structure on such land will also have been damaged because of long-term saturation. What else will need to be done to restore the vast acreage affected to the optimum productivity all agree is needed?

Back in 1970, after two wet winters, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food asked Sir Nigel Strutt, Essex farmer and former Country Landowners’ Association (now the Country Land and Business Association) president, to prepare a report on what was required to repair the damage those winters had done. He concluded that apart from excessive rain, organic matter had declined and that soils could not be expected to sustain the farming systems imposed upon them.

He called for more drainage and there was a 50% grant in place to encourage it. There’s no chance that will be reinstated, but as the crisis deepens the case for another in-depth study on the state of our soils increases. In view of the other constraints above, some of the £10m could usefully be allocated to that.