Earth, Snow and Fire

Polytunnels, soil health and reservoirs are just some of the ways British veg growers and farmers are adapting to climate change as extreme weather becomes the norm.

Climate change may bring to mind images of scorched deserts or polar bears stranded on receding icebergs, but its impact is already being felt much closer to home.

For farmers in the UK, one of the biggest changes has been the extremes in what is usually a relatively temperate British climate.

“The biggest thing for us is the uncertainty in weather patterns,” says John Richards, farm manager at Wash Farm, located in east Devon and headquarters of organic veg box company Riverford.

“We’ve just been through another year of extreme weather, from snow to a bone-dry summer, then 18-20 inches of rain over November and December. The average is usually around 40 for the year and last year we had 52,” he explains.

The latest climate change risk assessment for the UK, commissioned by the government and carried out by the Committee on Climate Change, highlighted water security, warmer temperatures and an increased risk of pest and disease among the biggest risks to British food production. 

In Europe, the effects are even starker. According to Flemming Andersen, account manager for Riverford in Spain, autumn and spring have practically disappeared, leaving a direct switch from over 30 degree heat in summer to the cold temperatures of winter. The result is that many growers are trying to spread the risk by farming on more than one location, or moving inland where the climate is less severe. “There is also a lack of water, that’s another disaster,” says Anderson. “Eventually, we won’t be able to grow in the same areas in Spain. They don’t have enough water,” says Andersen. 

For British farmers, it’s usually the wet weather that causes the most problems. Tractors can’t access and prep the ground for planting when soil is wet meaning the season is delayed, there is a higher risk of plant disease and nutrients in the soil are washed away. But in 2018, the farm team at Wash had bigger problems.

“We always used to say a drought year is better than a wet year, because of the timing of planting, less disease pressure and you can tackle the weeds. Then we ran out of reservoir water,” says Wash Farm crop manager, Alex Stephens.

Wash Farm in Devon ran out of water for the first time in 30 years in 2018

The farm’s supply of 32,000 cubic metres of water, which is stored across four reservoirs, ran dry during summer 2018 for the first time in 30 years, and they were forced to prioritise which crops needed the water most, leaving others to wilt. “In an ideal world, we would need another reservoir,” says Richards. “We think that it’s at least a £60,000 investment. The board wouldn’t deny the fact it’s important, but they’d also say you haven’t had a drought for 30 years. It’s about priorities.”

It’s that realisation of a longer-term volatile weather pattern that is starting to inform choices made by Martin Lines on his Cambridgeshire arable farm, where he grows wheat, oilseed rape and beans.

“We’ve noticed the extremes are getting worse. Several years ago we had the 2012 harvest which was terribly wet, and it was supposed to be a one-off, but when I look back, I see it more and more. The last three or four years I really am focusing hard on how to manage these extremes.”

For Lines, who farms on clay soil with a relatively high water table, it’s about ensuring his soil is healthy enough to either drain or hold the rainwater as required. “I’m trying to keep my soils covered at all times,” he explains. “I look after my soil by adding organic matter so that it drains well but also holds the moisture when it’s dry.”

Soil health doesn’t only help farmers adapt to climate change, it is also one of the biggest ways in which they can mitigate it. Healthy soils are a major store of carbon, containing three times as much as the atmosphere, according to the Soil Association, and as such have a huge potential to help reduce and counter greenhouse gas emission.

Beneficial predators also play a role as with more extreme weather comes more chance of unpredictable pest outbreaks. “I am interested in growing the margins around fields as habitats for pollinators. What I have seen as a result is a positive yield increase,” says Lines, who has also co-founded the Nature Friendly Farming Network, set up to represent farmers who want to work in harmony with nature. “If the weather is going to be more challenging, we need our farms to be a bigger resource of natural predators, so if we get an explosion of aphids, there is already the resource there to counter them.”

Snow on the farm
Facing extremes of snow and drought within one year has become the norm for UK farmers

It’s not just in farming practice that changes are being made. Increasingly, farmers are investing in machinery and crop protection that will help them withstand volatile weather.

Back at Wash Farm in Devon, Richards explains how polytunnels and crop covers, such as netting, are becoming crucial in order to allow crops to grow despite an unseasonal snow shower, heavy rainfall or explosion of pests. Riverford made a multi-million-pound investment on three large polytunnels seven years ago to protect the delicate salad crops, and Richards says this way of growing will only become more important. “The investment in polytunnels is definitely a way of making your cropping more robust,” he says.

It’s the same story on outdoor crops like spinach and chard, which are netted to create a more settled environment. Farmers have always dealt with unpredictable weather but it’s a sign of how predictable the unpredictable weather has become that nets and tunnels are now an increasingly common feature on farms.

Made from plastic, nets do raise the question of plastic use on farms, although they have a lifetime of eight years. And then there is the indirect benefit of allowing more British crops to be grown, which can displace imports and reduce food miles.

New climate, new crops?

What about the potential for new crops being grown thanks to warmer temperatures? The huge growth in English wine is a case in point, as well as things like courgettes, which wouldn’t have grown here 20 years ago according to Stephens.

“Going forward, we’re introducing some spring oats, sunflowers, millet and a few other crops,” explains Lines. “Because we’re going to have a drier September, I am looking at how we can make the most of that with crops that harvest later and like warmer climates. We might also be able to start growing things that traditionally are grown in the south of France.”

But not everyone sees climate change as a reality that is changing the way food is produced. Lines estimates around half of his peers in the farming industry are still sceptical and unwilling to adapt or invest in what they see as a normal weather cycle. Aside from the economic benefits he sees from better soil health and higher numbers of pollinators, he offers his own view on why he is changing the way he’s doing things: “I want to do my little bit, on my little bit of land, to slow down climate change.”


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