Drought is never a word to use lightly, but in what is now the longest dry spell for northern Europe since 1976 the D-word is being used. Farmers in the United States, Australia and China might be tempted to point to their own problems – for instance, virtually no rain at all for 16 months in south-west Australia – and say “Hey, THIS is a drought”, but, for most British farmers, conditions created by the past four months are quite enough to fret about.
The worry is, of course, that no rain has meant lack of growth for all grain, oilseed, vegetable and potato crops except those that are heavily irrigated, and lack of grass growth to feed grazing animals.
The problem of low rainfall, with only about 40 per cent of average falling over northern Europe in February, March and April, has been exacerbated by one of the sunniest, warmest springs in memory, plus, over much of the past fortnight, strong to gale force winds that suck moisture out of plants.
One effect, as happened in 1975 and 1976, the last years in which we could talk about a genuine drought in this country, and as indeed tends to happen with any unusual weather effect, is to increase crop and food prices.
If grain yields from this harvest are well down, and they almost certainly will be now, no matter how much rain falls in the next two or three months, grain prices will probably be at record levels. Correction – futures prices already are. Potato and vegetable prices are going the same way.
As for soft fruit we have become so accustomed in recent years to ample supplies of home-produced rasps and strawberries at reasonable prices for about eight months of the year that we forgot that much of the supply came from plants protected by plastic polytunnels.
The gale of May 23 reminded us, and growers, of that. Polytunnels protecting thousands of acres of soft fruit were ripped apart, destroying not only the plastic but twisting and bending metal supports into unusable scrap. Thousands of acres of the fleece used to protect vegetable crops from weather and pests were also destroyed.
Because polytunnels are not classified as permanent structures, most were not insured and the estimated cost of replacement suggested by one large scale fruit grower was £10,000 an acre. What struck me, as it almost always does when genuine physical or economic disaster hits farmers and growers as compared with minor problems and moans about government regulations and not enough subsidy, was the take-it-on-the-chin reaction and determination to repair damage, restore order and return to production as soon as possible.
It is an admirable trait, a side of farmers’ collective nature when facing real adversity that should be recognised more often. In the case of soft fruit and vegetable growers being hammered by freak weather, I also suspect their determination might have something to do with being completely unsubsidised and having to meet supermarket contracts to stay in business.
The supermarket buyer’s ethos is simple: the grower has a contract on quantity and quality to fulfil and it’s up to him to fulfil it. Natural disasters, indeed any kind of disaster, are no concern of the supermarket. What they demand is the contracted amount of product of the correct quality on their shelves when needed.
As a supplier facing production problems, such as watching helplessly as 50 acres of plastic and steel disappear in a gale or smash growing plants and fruit to pulp, that’s quite a thought. As Dr Johnson said about the prospect of being hanged in the morning, it concentrates the mind. And if, in spite of all growers’ efforts, supplies of home-grown soft fruit fall and supermarkets increase prices, we will know why and sympathise.
Considering the increasing effect of drought on crop yields this year, and the impact of unforeseen disasters such as gale damage on food prices, added to the continued advice we’re all getting to tighten our belts and worry about an uncertain financial future, could this be the time when we all start to think more seriously about food’s share of our personal budget?
It’s a fact quoted quite frequently, but without apparently having much effect, that two generations ago food accounted for more than 30 per cent of the average household budget and a generation or so ago still accounted for more than 20 per cent. Now, or at least until recently, it accounts for less than 10 per cent.
For many of us a mortgage became the main item. But energy bills, holidays, entertainment in and out of home, clothes, electrical goods and technology, drink in and out of home – we can each do our own list of preferences – also tend to figure in our thoughts before food.
Because most of us take for granted being well fed with a choice of whatever we fancy available at all times, often too well fed for the good of our health, we seem to get more irritated about increases in food prices than almost anything else except fuel. Now is probably a good time to rethink.