East’s farmers upbeat about crops as harvest approaches

Wheat field near New Buckenham

Hopes are high among East Anglian farmers for this year's wheat crop - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Earlier this year, a dire start to the 2020/21 growing season left many East Anglian farmers in a state of abject despair.

But three months on they are feeling remarkably upbeat.

After a disastrously cold and dry spring followed a soggy autumn and wet winter, prospects for their crops hit rock-bottom.

But as they approach harvest time the plants are looking better than their wildest dreams back in March and April.

The remarkable turnaround follows a wet, warm and often sunny May and June which revived the fortunes of their cereals and other crops. It produced a growth spurt which has successfully countered most of the damage done back in winter and spring.

A barley crop turning golden near Wymondham

An East Anglian barley crop turning golden as harvest approaches - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

The word “bumper” is not being bandied about by East Anglia’s ever-cautious farming community for harvest 2021. But many think — bar any major mishaps — they are certainly looking at an above average year as they dust off their combines ready to start harvest in the next week to three weeks. 

That said, there are patches where crops never recovered from their bad start which will still affect yields — and with fewer chemicals at their disposal, pest, weed and disease problems are constantly nipping at their heels.

A number of farmers suffered a woefully poor harvest last year — and for some it was disastrous. Even those who fared reasonably well won’t be looking back on 2020 with any nostalgia.
Recent East Anglian summers have been hot — sometimes intolerably so — and dry.

But favour has finally shone on the industry and even commodity prices are looking good — and in some cases very good. Oilseed rape prices have rocketed, and wheat — while falling from its peak — is still in the high £100s per tonne.

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For most it will be a slightly late start to harvest but no harm there if the yields and quality are good. 

What they need now is for the rain to abate, the sun to shine and for crops to dry off. Gales and hurricane damage can still put paid to all their hard work if crops are flattened — but provided the weather stays on side, it’s an auspicious start.

Stephen Rash, who farms at Wortham, near Diss, said his crops were looking very healthy after last year’s disappointment when yields were “well down”.

“Things are looking surprisingly well I think. Considering the conditions in the autumn followed by a very dry period in the spring, the rains came just in time. My crops are 
all looking pretty well,” he said. “All considered, I’m quite pleased.”

Had the spring weather persisted for a week to 10 days more, things could have looked very different now — but it won’t be a record crop, he said. He’s about two to three weeks from making a start on his 100 acres of winter barley which is starting to ripen “quite nicely”. He’s replaced out most of his oilseed rape this year leaving around 40 acres because of ongoing problems with cabbage stem flea beetle (CSFB)— a pest which can wreak havoc with the crop. He lost almost his entire crop. He’s also given up on sugar beet after 98 years of it being grown on the farm because he doesn’t feel the sums add up. He has no regrets.

“It was a very hard decision,” he admitted. “But the prices were unsustainable.”

His main crop is wheat at 300 acres, and he is also growing some peas (45 acres) and beans (100 acres).

“The weather over the next month will be pretty critical,” he said. With plenty of moisture in the soil, the crops didn’t need more rain — just sunshine and warmth, he said.

John Collen, at Gisleham, near Lowestoft, said his crops were also looking “fine”. Although his oilseed rape was badly hit by CSFB early this year, it had recovered somewhat and is in far better condition than he was expecting. Where he was looking at just half a tonne an acre in some place, it now looked like he might manage an average of between 1.5t and 1.75t.

“Wheat and barley all look well at the moment,” he said. “I would way they are going to be at least average.” However, if there was no sunshine between now and harvest quality could be of concern. He’s hoping to start combining his winter barley (600 acres) in a fortnight-plus, before turning his attention to his OSR crop (600 acres) and his wheats (2000 acres), which he expects to start on around August 7 to 10. “We are late this year — very late. We have had a very late, cold dry spring so everything took a long time to get going.” 

Andrew Blenkiron, who manages the Euston Estate in west Suffolk said winter cereals were showing lots of potential but he wouldn’t be combining as early this year as he normally does.

He’ll start with winter barley in a week or so. Unusually for his farm, the rains had come — but while things looked good from the roadside, that could hide a lot of sins, he said.

“It’s going to be considerably better than the last two years — there’s no doubt about that,” he said. Last year’s intense heat in May and June and lack of rain meant a below-par performance and when the incredibly cold April came around this year he feared he could be in for a similar bout of weather extremes.

But the late spring and early summer had been a boon for the crops. “They romped through their growth stages,” he said. The maize crop for the farm’s anaerobic digestion plant was also “romping away”, he said.

The irrigated vegetable crops — carrots, onion and potatoes grown under contract — had also been delayed because of the long cold spell.

This year, Euston, like many of the bigger operations, will take a big financial hit as the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) is tapered down. It means a loss of 20% of that income so the estate will need crops to do well to make up the shortfall.

Suffolk National Farmers’ Union branch chairman Glenn Buckingham farms at Helmingham, near Debenham. His winter barley was looking “respectable” and his winter wheat also respectable on very low inputs. Sunshine is what the crops need now, he said. His marrowfat peas were “absolutely glorious”. “I’m very, very pleased,” he said.

Guy Smith of St Osyth near Clacton-on-Sea suffered a dire harvest last year but is much more optimistic about his prospects this year. Crops were “full of potential”, he says. And his farm risked losing it status as the driest farm in the driest part of the country with 4in of rain in June. “I think we probably had more than places like Norfolk and Suffolk,” he said. “It’s a green summer which I don’t think I have seen in several years. June last year we had almost no recordable rain and that more or less put the nail in the coffin.”

This year, by contrast, he was seeing good grainfill. His 110 acres of OSR was challenging because of CSFB but it was looking “OK”. He is expecting to harvest it in late July and then his 400 acres of wheat in the first or second week of August.

But he admits that he will still be nervous until harvest is in. “I suppose we have been beaten by adverse weather so many times in the last couple of years but I understand it’s an emotional response but you don’t feel you trust weather at all and you worry this wet period is here to stay and if that happens it’ll be a difficult harvest.”

Stuart Laws, of Keith Farm Partnership, West Barsham, Fakenham, said he expected to start combining his winter barley between July 20 to 24. The last three harvests started in early July.

“The weather has presented its challenges as it always does. I think it has been a season of extremes, with a very wet autumn and winter which hampered establishment and this extended into the early spring but was then succeeded by a very dry April but followed by the wettest May period of my career and this extended into June to a lesser extent. 

“May and June solar radiation levels have been way below our long term average which is the main grain fill period and this may have an effect on crop performance.”

The late development of the crops has led to increased disease pressure from rust and septoria, and he has seen more seed weevil damage in his OSR than normal. Untreated parts of the wheat crop had seen some “Despite the challenges of the season, on the whole I am very pleased with all our crops and am very optimistic that we will have a successful harvest. In combination with above average prices am hopeful we can put regain equilibrium following the last couple of years.”

Nick Deane, chairman of Norfolk National Farmers’ Union branch, who farms at Hoveton, near Wroxham, said signs of the “horrible” autumn were still showing in the crops but there was “good potential out there”. “What we really need is some sunshine,” he said. 

David Jones of Morley Farm Ltd, Morley St Botolph, Wymondham, said he was “very optimistic” after a poor start. He expects to start combining his 150ha of winter wheat in the first week of August. His sugar beet, in comparison with last year, looked “fantastic”, he said. There were fewer aphids, and it established better than in previous years, he said.

His vining peas went in in good conditions at the end of April followed by rain and “they have never looked back really”. “I’m very optimistic. The prices are still very good,” he said. The biggest problem he’s faced is that just as plants have grown well — so have the weeds.

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