The turn of the year, when all the talk is of fresh starts and new opportunities, is the perfect time to take stock of the highs and lows of the 12 months just past. In the 21st century, there is one thing that continues to dominate farming in the same way that it has for thousands of years – the good old (and often bad old) British weather.
For arable farmers, the elements dictate livelihoods – and 2019 had its fair share of surprises. The hot, sunny Easter weekend was followed by a summer heatwave that made history, with the UK’s highest-ever temperature recorded in Cambridge University’s Botanic Garden at 38.7°C (101.7°F) on 25 July. According to the weather station on our farm near Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds, the temperature matched that record-breaking high. Our team has never been more thankful for air-conditioning in our combines! But the growing season and harvest time also saw lashing rain and howling winds, followed by one of the wettest autumns I can recall, with storm-battered Scotland and the north of England faring the worst.
Despite these extremes, the national cereal harvest was pretty good, with average yields and crop quality up on 2018, particularly early wheat and winter barley. Meanwhile, the UK oat harvest was one of the largest in the past 30 years, at about a million tons. It was largely due to some farmers switching to oats from oilseed rape when that crop was hit by dry sowing conditions and pest problems, especially in the south-east and Yorkshire.
Failing fields of oilseed rape didn’t make national news, but when rainstorms and flooded fields destroyed cauliflower crops in Lincolnshire (as well as cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts), the shortages in shops and raised prices led to papers declaring a ‘cauli crisis’. One Indian restaurant in Lancashire even considered becoming BYOC (Bring Your Own Cauliflower).
From brassica to Brexit
Overshadowing everything has been the wrangle over Brexit. No business likes uncertainty and concerns over our exit from the EU, along with a fall in sterling, were blamed by the NFU for fruit going unpicked, as farms struggled to employ enough workers from the continent.
From weaning calves in January to livestock markets in July and rebuilding walls in December, farmers are busy all year round. Month by month, our farming guide looks at the busy year in the life of a British farmer.
I joined thousands of other farmers in voting Remain in the 2016 referendum. But having accepted the result of the vote and respected the majority view, I believe the most important thing is to achieve the best deal for British farming. I’ve been heartened by the healthy debate that was sparked by the idea of “public money for public goods” (replacing EU subsidies with UK payments for environmental improvements). Whatever the outcome, it’s a reminder of how adaptable farmers have to be. UK farmers produce some of the highest-quality food in the world and it is important that we protect this, preventing sub-standard imports from flooding the market, and encouraging everyone to buy British.