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How Suffolk farmers at Rougham, Elveden, Shimpling and Helmingham are fighting back after months of downpours turned fields into quagmires

Suffolk’s farmers are used to being at the mercy of the weather, but the past six months have hit them with the worst conditions they have ever seen.

Months of relentless downpours that turned fields into quagmires have left many with a battle on their hands to salvage this year’s harvest.

Ever since October, when Storm Babet dumped almost double the month’s average rainfall on the county causing widespread flooding, it has been challenge after challenge. Two more big storms – Ciaran and Henk – plus other long wet spells meant land had no chance to dry out.

NFU Suffolk Chairman Glenn Buckingham. Picture: Pagepix Ltd
NFU Suffolk Chairman Glenn Buckingham. Picture: Pagepix Ltd

Sugar beet and other root crops like potatoes and carrots couldn’t be lifted. Cereal crops couldn’t be sown. For months all they could do was watch and wait.

Spring has brought a slow recovery. British Sugar kept a factory in Norfolk open until April 19 to cope with the late beet harvest and helped with transport costs. Wheat and barley are mostly in the ground.

But with everything delayed no-one is sure what the after effects will be. Farmers know better than anyone how unpredictable the weather can be and they are more nervous than usual because what comes next will be crucial.

A tractor fitted with extra wheels to work on wet land on the Rougham Estate
A tractor fitted with extra wheels to work on wet land on the Rougham Estate

It’s a critical factor in their livelihood – and the one over which they have absolutely no control. Crops weakened by waterlogging or late sowing will be less able to cope with stressful conditions like drought.

Glenn Buckingham, chair of Suffolk National Farmers Union which represents more than 1,000 members, says they are fighting back after the most difficult weather they can remember. As April drew to a close the month had seen yet more downpours – not the traditional balmy showers but icy daggers of rain driving into already wet, cold ground.

Glenn, who has been farm manager at the Helmingham Estate between Stowmarket and Framlingham for 34 years, said: “This is the worst year I have ever seen. We’ve not had such an extreme period of weather before. Since last spring and summer it has been erratic. The whole country has had a difficult period, and we are not as bad as some.”

Simon Eddell, manager of Rougham Estate
Simon Eddell, manager of Rougham Estate

The diverse mix of farming in Suffolk including arable, root crops and livestock, plus widely varying soil types and methods, meant different farms faced different challenges.

Those who had not drilled any winter-sown crops by the time the first storm hit were left with everything to do in the spring. But others found seed already sown washed out or rotting in the waterlogged ground.

“At Helmingham we have heavy land,” said Glenn. “We grow wheat, barley, oats, and peas and also grew some sugar beet last year for the first time in 40 years.

Organic farmer John Pawsey, who owns Shimpling Park Farm between Bury and Sudbury
Organic farmer John Pawsey, who owns Shimpling Park Farm between Bury and Sudbury

“Sowing wheat and barley has been delayed. We lost about 50-60 hectares of wheat we had already sown before Babet, which we have redrilled with spring barley.

“Farmers are all different in their situations and attitudes and soil. There is a whole variety which helps protect food supplies.”

But reduced yields are likely to lead to some food prices rising. “Because of the extra need for spring seed there was an increase in the cost and that has a bearing on yield costs this summer.

Andrew Blenkiron, manager of the Elveden Estate
Andrew Blenkiron, manager of the Elveden Estate

“We were concerned the market wouldn’t reflect what we could see on the ground. Now the bigger picture is being seen and there has been a reaction – £15 to 20 a tonne on wheat in the last 10 days. It’s an acknowledgement in the market place that there may be a limited harvest this year.”

At the Rougham Estate, near Bury St Edmunds, which has a mix of soil types, manager Simon Eddell said they had seen standing water in some of their fields but improving drainage had helped.

“In the last 10 years we have had a very active policy of reactivating our ditch network so maybe we were more fortunate than others. The active plan has really paid dividends.

“On our light land we are probably four to six weeks behind where we would normally have been, which is quite critical because it isn’t really moisture retentive,” he said.

“Crops need to get established and get a strong root network. If we go from exceptionally wet to exceptionally dry that will be very difficult.

“Last year wasn’t one of the wettest we have recorded here – what was significant was that we had so much rain in such a short time, and this certainly made things very difficult.

“There is always something with the weather, but the last six months have been the most significant in my time – I’ve been here 13 years now.

“We’ve had to adapt our cropping in certain places and crops haven’t gone in where we'd like them to be. They haven’t gone in when they should, and that will affect their yield.

“We have 780 hectares of winter sowing crops, a mix of cereal and oil seed rape. Rape is planted much earlier and that was less affected by the weather.”

A warmer, drier spell in early April helped them catch up on planting sugar beet and spring barley.

Wet weather doesn’t just impact planting but also the ongoing care. Putting heavy machinery onto waterlogged ground crushes the soil structure forcing out the air.

“When we have very wet land it impacts on how we can tend them, for instance with herbicides.

“Soil needs air pockets to allow all the things that live and grow in soil to live and breathe. Also it affects moisture retention if you force the air out.

“Our soils are incredibly fragile and we put a lot of work in by adding organic matter and restricting the amount of cultivation we do, but having to work on land when it is wet does a huge amount of damage that we will see for a couple of years to come.”

They used a tractor fitted with eight wheels instead of the normal four to spread the weight.

“It halves its impact on the soil, smaller tractor, bigger tyres, it’s all about treading lightly,” said Simon.

He also said that winter and spring planting coinciding would affect the time available for harvest making it much more condensed.

John Pawsey is an organic farmer who works his own land at Shimpling Park Farm between Long Melford and Bury, as well as farms at Cavendish and Long Melford.

By the end of last month some drier weather had helped them catch up on planting. “We’ve had a huge amount of work to do this spring because we didn’t get our winter crops sown,” he said.

“We have one field to sow which is proving difficult to turn around because it’s so wet, it’s on an old airfield, a former runway.

“A mix of soil helps. Over the last 20 years we have spent £10,000 and £15,000 a year redigging our ditches and doing our drainage every year and that has proved incredibly valuable this year and really paid off.

“As far as our soils being in good condition, that has been great. But because we have so much rain every little shower has topped it up again so that has been the difficulty.

“Whether or not our crops are good at the moment, they have a month less to grow in. I’m not expecting a very good harvest this year.

“We will have to adjust our budgets to reflect that. Prices are picking up a little bit but they are not huge.

“I’m definitely a glass half full person, but it’s no good leaving budgets as they are and expecting that to be the case.

“I think weather is what makes farmers resilient. Our guys on the farm were getting depressed but I’ve told them, we have taken every opportunity. We can’t do any more than the weather allows us to do,

John also has around 1,000 sheep. We’ve had a few problems with a virus and we think some of the ewes might have had that, and we have had some weak or misshapen lambs. But luckily the rain hasn’t been torrential during lambing, which was not too bad.

Farming organically has pros and cons in the current conditions. “Non-organic farmers potentially have a lot of other jobs to catch up on, as well as drilling, like fertilising and spraying,” he said.

“We only drill and do mechanical weeding, so our field work time is less. But with bad weather we will probably get diseases in our crops which we can’t do anything about while non-organic farmers can spray.”

Farmers in the Brecks, on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk, have fared better than many with their light, sandy soil but even they have experienced delays.

Andrew Blenkiron, newly-appointed manager of the Elveden Estate and previously director of the Euston Estate, has seen the aftermath of exceptional rainfall followed by a cold spring on both farms.

May began with a spell of welcome warmth but before that seedlings were keeping their heads down in often bitter winds.

“The rain hasn’t had too detrimental an effect on light land,” said Andrew. “But the soil and air temperature has been cold so that will delay crop development.

“One of the most difficult things to predict is how well crops will grow once the weather warms up.

“Elveden is largely arable, and potatoes, carrots, onions and sugar beet and cereals are probably two weeks behind.

“Some of the winter cereals, even here on this light land, didn’t look as well as they normally would because they have sat with wet roots all year.

“The real challenge with the winter cereals is probably yet to come – because it was wet it didn’t drive their roots down, so when it comes dry they dry out much quicker.

“It’s going to be an interesting cereal harvest this year in terms of yield – it’s predicted to be down quite a lot.

“Extremes of temperature and rainfall are more pronounced now than they ever were. Farming is particularly reliant on the weather. You can control other things you do, but weather is fundamental to the success of our business.

“Farmers are used to fighting back, it’s in their nature. One said to me, we can’t wait until harvest when we can start again … then hope to do better next year.”

He said livestock farmers had also faced challenges. “At Euston the river meadows were flooded most of the winter, so the sheep had to be kept off those.

“Livestock which have been outside have been wet all winter. Also with those that have been inside, the cost of feeding has increased.”

The change in farming grants from the EU policy of direct support to public money for public good, with the emphasis on the environment, has removed what used to be a safety net in difficult years.

“The problem now is the lack of direct support from the government,” said Andrew. “In previous years we had a support payment in autumn that has guaranteed business survival.

“That level of security to cope with the volatility we are faced with has gone.”

He said farmers had questioned whether the government had held the protection of the food supply as importantly as it should,

“We do think that DEFRA, in the way they are talking now, do regard food as particularly important. But there were a few years where they seemed to move away from that.

“I do applaud net zero and more trees and enhanced protection of our environment but that narrative took over the whole conversation.”