Vegetable growers facing the worst drought in 35 years are warning of a delayed season and potential shortages as the heat is affecting both healthy crops and new seedlings.
French beans, leeks, beetroot and potatoes are among some of the worst affected, with growers facing losses or ploughing crops in because they are so small it is not worth the cost in labour to harvest.
The UK is facing its second weather warning in a month for severe heat this weekend as rainfall dips to record lows and temperatures exceed 30 degrees. In the usually high rainfall area of the South West, reservoirs used to irrigate have run dry and heat stress has meant crops are dying just days before being ready to harvest.
“Everyone is really struggling. French beans had been looking fantastic and healthy, and they stagnated before being ready to pick and now they’re just drying out,” said small-scale veg grower Leah Harris, based near Noss Mayo in south Devon.
“Normally you could wait for four days for them to plump up, but they’re completely gone. We’ve lost about 1.5 tonnes. It’s not just us – others are managing to harvest, but one grower who has been doing it for 20 years said he’s never seen anything like it.”
Extreme weather, including severe heat and drought in summers, and heavy rain and flooding in winter, are two of the biggest ways climate change will increasingly affect British food production.
In a recent report mapping the future climate risks to growers in the South West, author Elise Wach said water storage and extraction will be one of the biggest investments that growers will need to make.
Many have noted that no new reservoirs have been built by the government since the Second World War, with founder of Riverford Guy Singh-Watson pointing out both politicians and to a lesser extent, growers, need to invest more urgently for future climate risks.
Elsewhere, a new technique that has come from the regenerative farming movement to reduce ploughing and prevent carbon being released has also shown signs of helping soils retaining more moisture.
“The brassicas are looking really happy, in our strip till trial zone, because we haven’t ploughed that field so it has retained a lot of moisture,” said Harris. “Whereas in the leeks where we’ve ploughed a lot, the soil is dry.
A strip till method leaves strips of a field untouched, and cultivates the soil to a more shallow depth to plant crops with a specific machine and preserve the soil structure.
“We’ve never used irrigation but we’re only in our fourth year of growing. It’s probably likely we will in the future if it’s going to be like this. At our scale, we need to consider if it’s viable,” said Harris.
“We have never known anything like this,” said potato farmer Duncan Janaway, who has pulled up green potato plants to find zero tubers due to heat stress.
Janaway, who farms near the village of Odiham in Hampshire, named the driest place in the UK in July, said his team is now ploughing in potatoes which are growing to less than the size of a 50p, and have already cost £1,300 per acre to grow.
Assistant harvest manager at Riverford’s Wash Farm, Ed Scott, said: “In one word, it is dire. We have completely run out of irrigation water: we have just enough to keep our most high value crops going such as salad leaves, polytunnel cucumbers and tomatoes, but if it doesn’t rain soon we may have to decide to water one or the other.
“Weather extremes look to be the new normal. We need to adapt by using more irrigation where feasible, irrigating as efficiently as possible, and digging more reservoirs so that we can stockpile. Protected cropping (polytunnels) give us some insurance against extreme weather too.”
Devon-based organic chicken farmer Jerry Saunders, who also grows a range of trees in an agroforestry system, said: “We knew we were a dry farm in a microclimate for low rainfall, but we have been here over 30 years now and never been as dry as this.
“We are just watching our farm blow off in dust. We planted another 100 young apples trees, not to mention hundreds of hedging trees and fear we are going to lose the lot, at significant cost and heartache. This year is extraordinarily tough on so many different levels, and certainly enough to test even the most resilient and optimistic of farmers.
“It is seriously worryingly, on top of everything else this year and the pressures of this winter to come, a drought heaving food prices up further is a concern.”
Harris added: “I think we will see a delayed season. I’m quite worried about the shortages, especially with the cost-of-living crisis. I think it will be a hard winter. It’s difficult to know where support or help should come from.”
Aside from the losses, growers are facing huge emotional strain and difficult decisions around which crops to save and which to sacrifice. Harris, who farms with her partner Jake, said: “It’s so hard to grow veg; it can feel quite thankless. But the thing that gets you through is there’s a real purpose; you’re feeding people. And to not even have that is really demoralising.”
Head of the Met Office’s National Climate Information Centre, Dr Mark McCarthy, said: “Our research shows human-caused climate change has set us on a course to see temperature extremes in the UK that would be highly unlikely under a ‘natural’ climate, although urgent action to reduce emissions now can significantly reduce the occurrence of extreme high temperatures in the UK in the future.
“Analysis shows that in some parts of the southeast between 1960 and 2019 the hottest days of the year have already increased by one degree each decade, showing the UK is already on a warming trend when it comes to heat extremes.”
“Whilst a one degree background temperature increase may not seem significant, the resulting increase in the severity of extreme heat events is already evident in the observed record. This has widespread and significant impacts.”
Tips for water saving in home veg patches from assistant harvest manager, Ed Scott
- Mulch everything you can to keep the water in
- Water direct rather than using a sprinkler
- Avoid using the mains if possible: grey bath and/or sink water will do