As I look at my wizened, drought-ravaged spring barley crop I’m reminded how cruel farming can be. Why is it that, in our profession, when things start to go wrong they invariably go from bad to worse?
As I reported in the May edition of South East Farmer, the land on which I am growing spring barley this year I first sowed to winter wheat last October. Everything looked so promising at the time, but no sooner had I sowed the seeds than the heavens opened and drowned them. Faced with more blackgrass on the land than surviving wheat, this spring I sprayed off the field with glyphosate and, in April, reseeded it to barley.
Since then the crop has been subjected to an April drought followed by the hottest, driest May ever recorded. This unhelpful sequence of weather has so stunted the barley plants’ root growth it has caused them to shed most of their tillers. It is unquestionably the worst crop I’ve managed to grow in 40 years. So appallingly thin is the crop now that my locked-down youngest daughter has felt moved to write about it for her online school magazine. She has even photographed the crop to support her article. Oh, the shame of it.
So, June rushes past, and the crop looks more sorry by the day. We are getting the occasional light rain, but I want a deluge. I want rain and then more rain because the barley roots are still not deep enough to find much moisture deeper in the soil profile.
But of course, this being a farming disaster, the agony does not end here. I’m not the only farmer who suffered flooded fields last October so the sown area of this year’s UK barley crop has hugely increased as many winter crops were either never sown or, like mine, were flooded out and had to be re-drilled.
The latest estimates by the AHDB suggest that the area sown to spring barley this year will be up 47% from 2019, with “increases particularly prevalent in those areas most impacted by the wet weather”. While the South East barley area may only be up 11%, the East Midlands is up a massive 149%, and Yorkshire and the Humber 139%. The barley crop is therefore likely to be a big one and the forecast increased tonnage is weighing heavily on futures barley prices.
Even that is not the end of the difficulties for UK barley in 2020. In any year, a large proportion of the crop is sold for brewing or distilling (either here or abroad) and both these industries have been badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Pubs in the UK and many bars in Europe have been shut since March, and many whisky distillers have ceased production due to social distancing concerns at distilling premises. Despite increased beer sales by supermarkets to customers in lockdown, UK maltsters and distillers used 28% less barley in April 2020 than in the same month a year ago, and this ongoing reduced demand for old crop barley is likely to weaken 2020 new crop barley prices.
So, however light the yield from my barley crop, it doesn’t look like I will enjoy a decent price for it. August futures for feed barley are a disappointing £120 per tonne and that is with sterling plumbing to near record lows against the euro in recent weeks as Brexit draws ever nearer.
I comfort myself with the thought that there is not much I could have done to alter this sequence of events. The weather is the weather. Indeed, to be able to ride out such prolonged agony and remain in comparative good cheer is a vital attribute of being a farmer.