Many commentators are harking back to 1976 as the last time we had similar conditions. That is so long ago that I was sitting A level exams and not paying too much attention to the weather, but I do remember it went dry earlier in the year and was more severe. The last crops we cut in 1976 were spring beans in mid August and we cut them at night when there was sufficient moisture on the pods to get them in to the machine. Yields were poor with moisture contents very low. Cultivations were impossible and when it started to rain in September it did not stop for six months.
For a country that some years barely has a hot day we are certainly enjoying a marvellous summer but it brings a variety of challenges. While we have yet to see hosepipe bans in the South East other parts of the country have and their reservoirs look low enough to cause the water companies sleepless nights. In Kent most of our springs along the bottom of the scarp slope of the Downs continue to run, as do the bournes on the dip slopes – so ground water reserves are still adequate as are our local reservoirs. Water companies are again talking about building the new Broadoak reservoir at Canterbury although I think they were talking that talk after 1976.
The oilseed rape that was sprayed with glyphosate is ready to harvest 14 days after application and moisture contents are in the region of six per cent, posing challenges when delivering to Erith oilseed mill. Seeds are not uniformly black and Elgar in particular has a lot of red seeds although they crush yellow. Yields are very variable with heavy Weald clay a little over 2.5 tonnes a hectare and good soils reaching 4.5t/ha. As ever in stress conditions better soil quality stands out. Disease that was shown more in Elgar than Campus has followed through to lower comparative yields at harvest.
It is an early harvest and by the time we finish oilseed rape the winter wheat on the Weald clays will be ready to cut well before the end of July. Disease combined with dry weather has certainly caused early senescence of crops and there is the risk that grain fill has been damaged. That said sun and high temperatures drive photosynthesis and we have had both in abundance so I remain optimistic that wheat crops will deliver reasonable yields. Judging from the interest we have had in buying straw, livestock farmers have serious forage concerns: we will grow as much as we can unless the weather turns inclement.
I mentioned a couple of months ago that we had to abandon ecological focus area (EFA) fallows due to late blackgrass emergence and change our options to catch and cover crops. Well here we are looking to establish those catch crops and we are faced with arid fields that are not amenable to creating seed beds and weather that will not encourage germination. Difficult to believe that some parts of the UK were seeking derogations to the three crop rule as the wet spring weather was preventing spring drilling and now we are trying to establish or at least sow catch crops before an August deadline. There is already talk about what the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) will do about this opposite weather extreme and no doubt if it continues a derogation will be needed for the opposite reason. Europe and no doubt in due course our own civil servants can write the rules but the weather makes a mockery of implementing them some years and this year is one of them.
Having mentioned the RPA I would like to recount some of the challenges we have faced with them over our 2017 application. As I have mentioned before we did have issues in 2015 around fields, mapping and entitlements which followed through into 2016 and those were finally resolved before we submitted our 2017 claim so I was full of optimism that we might be in for a better experience. Last June along with many other farmers in Kent we had the pleasure of an inspection and remapping exercise. A good team of RPA staff spent a couple of weeks with us inspecting and mapping. Nothing happened in terms of follow up nor did any payment materialise in December. In April we received an interim payment, around 60% of what we were expecting. On 20 June the results of the inspection and also of a remote sensing inspection arrived and a further top up payment on 25 June which had penalties applied to the EFA greening element as some of the EFA nitrogen fixing crops in the form of winter and spring beans had not been found by the remote sensing even though the guys on the ground had walked all of the relevant fields. Tracing the cause of the penalty was complicated and providing further evidence of the cropping was also difficult as it is now more than a year ago. Without doubt Europe and the UK have created a complicated system and when George Eustice and Michael Gove speak of a simpler system one can understand where they are coming from and why it has resonance with farmers. But does anyone think they can actually deliver a simple system from scratch? I suspect the answer is no support is a much simpler system to deliver.
Finally if you read the Sunday Times on 15 July there was an article regarding Brexit and trade by Dominic Lawson. A free trade advocate, his comment on the agricultural sector in the UK was that at less than two per cent of gross domestic product, it really was of no consequence in comparison to the contribution of the financial services sector in London and it should be willingly sacrificed to secure trade deals with the rest of the world. Dominic is a keen advocate of Brexit along with Michael Gove et al and their free trade world has little room for domestic agricultural production, whatever they say in public.