Wet weather woes echo 1912

It’s not that I want to talk it up but we have had summers as bad, or worse, than this before.

My late father wrote in his autobiography that he remembered as a young child the great flood of August 1912. “Streams became raging torrents,” he wrote. “Roads became rivers and the sheaves of corn were washed from the fields.”

He described how he and some older boys took the wooden threshold from the barn, nailed a mast to it and tried to sail across a flooded meadow. “Fortunately it capsized before we reached deep water,” he continued, “or I should probably not have been here to tell the tale.” And neither, I suppose, would I be here to repeat it.

This, remember, took place in Norfolk, normally one of the driest counties in the country. A hundred years later, it’s been too wet for too long but not as bad as father experienced. Other parts of the country have not been so fortunate and crop damage in some areas has already begun to take the shine off yields and returns of vining peas, potatoes and field vegetables. And the wet weather diseases in cereal crops mean they will not escape unscathed. St Swithin’s Day will have occurred by the time you read this although it’s a few days away as I write. We deserve a dry harvest but the forecast remains unsettled.

It’s all because the Jet Stream is too far south, the weather men tell us. Whether they blame its (hopefully temporary) migration on climate change is not clear. Presumably the floods of 1912 were not caused by that modern phenomenon so it might be because of normal climatic variability. In any case we can do little about it except once again point out to politicians and economists that they should reconsider building up strategic reserves in good years to feed the growing world population, as well as investing more in research to help farmers deal with extremes of weather.

A year ago, need I remind you, we were in the middle of the worst drought for generations and looking at an even poorer harvest prospect. Sadly, in this area, our worst fears were realised. Yields were disastrous and we’re still feeling the financial pinch. But despite the problems of too much rain, I’m bound to say I prefer it to too little. Yields and quality may be a bit lower than ideal but at least they won’t run out of soil moisture before the combines roll and there appears to be a reasonable crop out there as long as we can get it into the barn.

If you need confirmation of that sentiment, consider the situation in the American Midwest. The “Corn Belt”, as it’s called, has been suffering from temperatures of 40C for weeks with no rain. Farmers are anticipating yields to be between 25% and 50% down on expectations and, although the acreage planted this spring was up, the size of the national crop is likely to be well down.

This follows serious yield-sapping drought across much of Latin America a few months ago. And suddenly the world, which pundits predicted would be awash with surplus grain later this year, appears to be heading for shortage. That’s why UK prices have soared over the last two or three weeks and as long as we haven’t sold it all too early we should be able to recoup rain-based loss of output from the market.

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

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