Weather plight will cost farmers and shoppers

Duncan Farrington has been struggling with his wheat crop at Bottom Farm in Hargrave due to the amount of rain we have had.
Duncan Farrington has been struggling with his wheat crop at Bottom Farm in Hargrave due to the amount of rain we have had.

It seems odd to talk about the UK’s problem with food production when there are children in the developing world who have literally starved to death.

But as Western poverty goes, there seems to be more and more people throughout this country who cannot afford to feed their families.

And the problem looks set to worsen as farmers – and consumers – pay a toll for a year of drought and floods which has made the difficult act of growing food something akin to a conjuring act.

Recently the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) unveiled national statistics on the state of agriculture in the UK, revealing the poor state of many crop harvests and notably a drop of 13 per cent in the wheat yield compared to 2011.

Alison Pratt, spokesman for the National Farmers’ Union East Midlands (including Northamptonshire), said: “We have seen some very bad weather and it has come at the wrong time as usual. We had a dry spring then a wet spring, then a very cold summer so crops haven’t gone the way we wanted them to. It has affected the amount of grain and potatoes and the quality.”

As well as quantity, the wet weather has affected the quality of the wheat and there have also been problems with disease in the crop.

But global farming concerns also look set to be a factor in our food prices too.

Alison explained: “The drought in the USA has affected the corn and soy crops and that has combined with the problems in Europe. That has had a knock-on effect on our livestock producers; they rely on wheat, corn and soya to feed animals.”

She continued: “We are seeing a shortage of potatoes and root veg and we are hoping that the customers won’t mind that potatoes and other veg aren’t as pretty as in previous years. There will be price hikes and the price of bread will have to go up.”

As with the rest of the country, the wet weather has put a dampener on farmers’ crops throughout Northamptonshire.

Adrian Smith, who owns Smiths Farm Shop in Chapel Brampton, said: “Our main crops are asparagus, potatoes and pumpkins and all have been hit. With the new potatoes we lost 90 per cent of these as it was so wet we couldn’t harvest them so they stayed in the ground.

“We still have pumpkins but 40 per cent of what we would expect. Potatoes are looking to go up in price but that is right across the board wherever you look and it is not just in the UK.”

Farmer Duncan Farrington, of Bottom Farm in Hargrave, may be better known for his successful Mellow Yellow rapeseed oil but rapeseed is only 30 per cent of what he grows.

With the wet weather of this week he is currently struggling to plant next year’s wheat crop. Duncan’s wheat ends up being sold through grain merchants to be distributed to regional companies and used in everything from breakfast cereals to flour. This year his crop has been about 20 per cent down on what he would normally expect.

He said: “The quality of wheat is absolutely terrible and they have to make biscuits or bread or whatever out of it, that is going to cause huge problems. As a country we are going to be low on crop and low on quality.

“From my point of view we have just finished one harvest and now we are in October I haven’t planted next year’s crop yet as it has been so wet. That will have serious knock-on effects for next year.”

But the impacts on the cost of keeping livestock could be even more severe.

Farmer Trevor Foss from Ravensthorpe keeps sheep and cattle.

He said: “I shall not be buying my sheep feed until January but I know the prices have gone up. I don’t know for sure how much it will go up by.”

One thing looks certain, the cost of poor harvests may be absorbed to an extent by the consumers themselves.

Recent consumer research has revealed that shoppers could be forced to fork out up to 60p more for a packet of eight sausages, 70p more for a packet of bacon and £2.50 more for a pork roasting joint within months if mounting losses force more pig farmers out of business. With global crop production seriously affected by drought, driving up the cost of pig feed, farmers are now losing about £14 per pig reared. Without a price increase, it is believed that losses for the industry could hit £100m over the next six months, forcing farmers out of business.

Charles Smith, CEO of the Farm Crisis Network, based in West Haddon, said: “Livestock farmers are seeing the price of feed going up and wheat prices are at an all-time high and things like soy are at a very high price.

“Many farmers have had to keep their cattle indoors and have been feeding winter feed during the summer, so could be short during the winter.”

He continued: “I think it will be make or break for quite a number of farmers this year but farmers are tenacious, they will go on as long as they can as that is what they want to be doing.

“The idea of giving up because they are not making money doesn’t always occur to them. They are a hard working people and never want to think of giving up the family business. Sometimes farms have been in families for generations.”

But can local families afford to take the strain of increased food costs?

The Corby Food Bank already works to provide emergency food rations to families in need.

Adam Boud from the Food Bank said: “Since March we have given out 3,000 meals and we are concerned it is going to get worse for a lot of reasons.

“I would say at the back of our mind is a concern about people on low incomes. There are people in the local community on low incomes who are finding that with bills going up the only budget they can cut is the food budget.

“We are seeing a mixture of people each week who can’t afford to eat. But the people of Corby are generous and if we do a collection we are always blessed with lots of food.”