“Well, they don’t seem to mind being shut in a dust bowl with only parched grass to eat. In fact, they are thriving.” So commented my local auctioneer having just selected three fat heifers for local butchers from a larger group of my fattening cattle. His comment reminded me of a stock phrase of my grandfather’s: a dry summer never broke a farmer.
As this summer has developed and my spring barley has failed to tiller properly, my crop of spring born lambs have been slow to grow and my grass crops have not filled out properly I’ve repeated my grandfather’s old saying for comfort.
What he was getting at, of course, was that although yields of combinable crops or grass will be light, the quality will often be surprisingly high. The Hagbergs of winter wheat will be off the scale, as will the germination rates of spring malting barley. Similarly, the quality of specialist crops like marrowfat peas will be excellent and – as an added bonus – all these crops can be harvested at a relaxed pace with crop dryers left silent. These quality crops can be harvested cheaply and then often sold at a high price, as lighter yields and a potential shortage of grain encourage merchants to up their bids.
The great relief of this year – at least locally to my area, but I think across most of the South East – is that we have only had a summer drought. Things would have been hugely more difficult had we not had two heavy night time rains in May which got most of the grain crops away and which was a considerable boost to any grass fields set aside for hay or silage.
Contrast that with the mother of all dry years – 1976. I was only a school boy and summer holiday tractor driver on my father’s farm at that time but I can still remember the parched conditions. That year there was no rain after mid March. I remember my father removing all the sheep and cattle from our downland pastures that had turned brown by early summer and driving them down to the more drought resistant marshland. The crops ripened, or – to be more precise – simply withered, so early that he completed a 1,200 acre harvest before the end of July. (One word of warning for anyone who thinks it’s never going to rain again – 1976’s record dry summer suddenly turned into a very wet autumn with our drilling of winter crops of wheat never completed.)
But not even 1976 was a financial disaster. Winter wheat yields were satisfactory and, against all the odds, the spring barley crop (Golden Promise was surely one of the greatest spring barley varieties of all time) yielded 1.50 tonnes to the acre of high quality malting barley that sold at a good price. Even the sheep and cattle, with apparently very little to eat, survived the summer in remarkably good order.
So, I’m trying to remain upbeat as I drive around my farm, which, at the time of writing, looks more like Provence than East Sussex. In any case my grandfather’s phrase needs updating: a dry summer never broke a farmer – particularly with the basic payment scheme to fall back on.