DESPERATE farmers in the North-East face losing millions of pounds as the worst harvesting conditions in living memory threaten to wash out their crops.
Last weekend’s dramatic floods – which left already saturated crop fields under water – could mean disaster for arable farmers already struggling to cope with falling cereal prices and soaring costs.
It is claimed that some individual farmers may have to write off up to £1m – as they face losing what has been described as “the most expensive crop ever”, and cannot get their machines on to waterlogged fields.
Yesterday farmers in Northumberland said this is the worst autumn harvest they can remember, and predicted that large areas of crops will have to be abandoned as unrecoverable.
They are also facing a race against the clock to get next year’s crops into the ground, with some claiming it is already too late to meet next week’s planting deadline for oilseed rape.
The National Farmers’ Union last night warned that food prices may be affected if crops like wheat have to be imported to make up for a shortfall.
Now the NFU is calling on the Government to grant special dispensation for farmers in Northumberland and County Durham to be allowed access to waterlogged fields in a bid to avert the crisis.
Under the normal rules, they would jeopardise their single farm payments by taking heavy equipment on to waterlogged land because of the potential damage to soil.
At the same time, hundreds of cattle and sheep in the region were swept to their deaths by last weekend’s floods.
Now bosses at rural estate agent George F White are trying to coordinate a salvage operation to save as much of this year’s wheat and potatoes as possible, and get next year’s crops into the ground.
The company is offering to coordinate a pool of machinery that can operate in the wet conditions, and hope that once farmers have harvested their own crops they will offer the machinery to those in need. Its staff are also offering free consultancy to affected farmers, and will try to put in place a disaster recovery plan.
Yesterday the NFU said there is “very little if any” milling wheat, destined for bread, making the grade, and that sheep and dairy farmers are also facing a shortage of winter fodder, with hay-making a total washout and the second cut of silage looking less and less likely.
And speaking about the possibility of bread prices rising further, the NFU’s chief arable adviser Guy Gagen said: “Generally, mills use 85% British wheat in their flour. Anything that reduces the British crop might have an impact.”
Glen Sanderson, who farms at Eshott near Morpeth and is a former NFU cereals delegate for Northumberland, said: “This is the most serious and ghastly harvest I have known in 45 years of farming. The farming industry in the region will lose millions of pounds as a result.
“I have still got wheat to cut in fields in which I was standing up to my knees in water at the weekend. Some farmers are at the end of their tethers and are rapidly approaching the end of their overdrafts.”
George F White managing partner, Hugh Fell, said: “We think some of our guys are going to suffer really devastating financial hardship. They have effectively grown the most expensive crop ever, because of the rising oil price, which feeds down to fertiliser and spray as well as the direct costs.
“I think we’ll see some people go bust. Some of the bigger operators have a couple of thousands acres of wheat and they can’t get it. You’re talking about losing up to £1m. It’s not only this year’s harvest, it’s next year’s that they are trying to get in the ground.”
Northumberland NFU chairman Tom Neill, who farms at Mindrum, said: “We have heard stories of hundreds of animals being swept to their deaths in this weekend’s floods and beef, sheep and dairy farmers are also facing a shortage of winter fodder.
“The result will be a huge salvage operation right across the county, with arable farmers desperately hoping for some dry weather to give them an opportunity to get what they can from this year’s harvest, and perhaps also get on with autumn planting.”
'It is close to being a disaster... this heavy rain could not have come at a worse time'
FIELDS saturated by a wet summer and left under water by last weekend’s deluge are causing a major headache for Northumberland farmer and former county NFU chairman Gordon Meek.
The waterlogged conditions mean he can’t get his crops into the ground for next year, and is unable to cut about 250 acres of wheat which he still needs to harvest for neighbouring farmers on a contract basis.
Mr Meek, who farms at Eland Hall in Ponteland, said: "We have not turned a wheel for a week and the ground conditions are now so wet I don’t know how we are going to travel these fields.
"Oilseed rape should have been drilled by now for next year but we have written off any possibility of doing that because there is not enough time left. That goes for everyone in this area.
"The financial implications of all of this are quite dramatic because we have got falling cereal prices, rising costs for fuel and fertilisers and soaring drying costs. I have about £10,000 worth of seed on the farm, which we have to pay for, but can’t get it into the ground.
"That means that next year we will have an awfully smaller harvest to sell. The heavy rain has meant a real double whammy for farmers and we now need six or seven weeks of exceptionally good weather to get the wheat harvested, and the wheat and barley drilled.
"If we don’t get that we are in a real mess. It is very close to being a disaster and farmers are very depressed at the moment."
Frank Dakin, 47, has 1,700 acres of cereals and oilseed rape at Duddo Farm near Berwick. Yesterday he said: "This heavy rain could not have come at a worse time of year. We are going to have very serious problems with our wheat and potatoes because it is going to be very difficult to get into the fields and lift them.
"We have had to put dual wheels on our combines to stop them sinking into the ground and getting stuck, but we have fields where we will not be physically able to harvest. About 10% of the wheat has been harvested but what proportion of the remaining 90% we will get I just don’t know.
"This is the worst harvest I have known in my 47 years and the consequences are very dramatic for the farming industry and the wider rural economy."