The turn of the year will be momentous. A new decade, a new majority Government, a future outside the European Union, all will bring huge changes in the months and years to come. It is customary at this time of year to look back at the last year and forward to the seasons to come.
The weather in the early months of 2019 was certainly better than in 2018 when the Beast from the East caused loss and despair. This February was exceptionally dry and mild allowing timely drilling of spring crops and autumn sown crops to grow out of winter. A fortnight of storms brought some much needed rain and delayed planting but the warm dry trend resumed after that. Indeed, by the end of May there was concern of drought with hosepipe bans predicted. The crops looked in great shape but were beginning to get thirsty.
June was the hottest ever over most of Europe but it was a very wet month in many parts of the UK. In this area, we missed the worst of the deluge and crops, including grass and forage crops, were provided with a good drink. Second cut silage and hay-making produced high yields to replenish stocks that had been very low after the previous year.
Oilseed rape, the area of which continues to decline since the ban on neonicotinoid insecticides, was variable depending upon the extent of the havoc caused by flea beetle. Winter wheat crops in general were excellent with some farmers claiming record yields. Taking an ever larger area in southern England, our vineyards had another great year although perhaps not as good as the extraordinary vintage of 2018. Spring crops were variable, especially barley with early sown crops doing well but later ones disappointing.
Harvest itself was a stop/start affair as there were no prolonged spells of dry weather. On balance, yields and quality were good, especially those crops harvested early, and it was certainly a fine summer for livestock. The real problems have come in the autumn. After months of low rainfall, the heavens have opened and there seems a continuous conveyor belt of depressions sweeping in from the Atlantic bringing gales and heavy rain.
Few farmers have finished autumn drilling and some have not managed to plant any seed at all. Oilseed rape was eaten by flea beetle yet again and soils are now water-logged. It must be nightmare for those trying to harvest root crops, potatoes, sugar beet, parsnips, and not much better for cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. One local farmer told me he had his three biggest fields yet to plant whilst a friend of his in Kent had yet to start sowing his autumn crops. The best hope now, if a seedbed is possible, is hard frosts to allow the passage of machinery.
Many varieties of winter wheat can be planted late, even into spring, but a shorter growing season is likely to reduce yields. But if not wheat, then what? Spring wheat is rarely successful so spring barley is the obvious answer, but there is already a surplus and prices are very low. By contrast, the price of wheat is rising on the expectation of drastically reduced yields.
Livestock farmers are better off, unless they have animals grazing winter forage such as stubble turnips which have become a quagmire. One told me that his cattle have access to stubble turnips by day but prefer to remain in the shed rather than wallow in the mud! At least there is plenty of hay and silage to feed in-wintered livestock.
So, what are the prospects for 2020? The first priority for arable farmers must be for the land to dry out. It remains to be seen what damage has been caused to those crops that were planted from months of waterlogged soils. Hard frost now might prove fatal, especially alternate frost and thaw leading to the soil lifting, shearing the stem from the roots. On heavy soils it may be well into spring before the land dries enough to work. There is also the risk of significant compaction if heavy machinery travels over wet soils. For some the best option might be to leave fields fallow or sow short-term restorative cover crops in preparation for next autumn.
On the political front, there will be little change in the immediate future. The Government is committed to achieve a free trade deal with the EU by the end of the year but that is very optimistic. The huge risk is, as it has always been, leaving the EU with no trade agreement, reverting to WTO rules. That would be catastrophic for British farming, especially beef and sheep. The price of beef in Ireland is already so depressed that farmers are blockading supermarkets demanding a fair price.
Direct payments will continue unchanged this year but will be phased out by 2027. This together with the introduction of the Environmental Land Management Scheme will lead to major restructuring of British farming and, the sooner farmers start to adjust, the more likely they are to be successful. One should always be optimistic when raising a glass to a New Year but it is not easy to find anything to be cheerful about this time round.
Wishing all readers a very happy and prosperous New Year.