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Heatwave hits Britain’s struggling farmers as crops of potatoes, onions and carrots slump

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Food prices are set to rise by £7.15 a week as heatwave hits Britain’s struggling farmers with crops of potatoes, onions and carrots slumping by as much as one-fifth

Record heatwaves across the UK, drought conditions in some areas and sporadic rain have hampered this year’s harvest, leaving farmers to count costs and consumers to count their coins.

Yields of key crops have fallen due to weather swings, particularly in the north and west, which recently saw wet conditions, which meant many farmers had struggled to bring in the wet crops.

Early indications from the harvest are that yields of wheat are likely to be down by about a quarter, and that staples such as potatoes, onions and carrots have plunged by as much as 20%.

According to the British Growers Association, the weather this autumn will be crucial for many vegetables

According to the British Growers Association, the weather this autumn will be crucial for many vegetables

While the impact of lower yields is expected to be cushioned by higher farmgate prices for produce, many farmers are turning to the banks for increased loans to keep them ticking over as the costs of fuel, fertiliser and feed have all risen sharply.

Livestock farmers are one group that are feeling the heat, as feed prices have increased and long and hot dry spells have forced many to dig into their feed reserves, with straw being in short supply in some areas.

Milk yields were also depressed by the hot weather, as was the fertility of pigs.

Yield of staples such as potatoes, onions and carrots have plunged by as much as 20%

Yield of staples such as potatoes, onions and carrots have plunged by as much as 20%

While food price rises have come as a shock to consumers – with prices to go up 5%, adding £7.15 to the monthly shopping bill, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Little of those increases will return to the farmer. For example, of the price of a loaf of bread, flour makes up only about a tenth.

According to the deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Guy Smith, what farmers have gained due to unpredictable weather, they have lost elsewhere.

‘What farmers gain on the market swing, they lose on the yield roundabout. Farmers are price takers, not price makers, and input prices have gone up under other pressures,’ he told the Guardian.

The NFU estimates that fertiliser prices have gone up by 23% this year, while motor fuel is up by about a fifth and other energy costs by 16%. Feed such as barley has risen 12% in price, while soybeans and similar feed are up 16%.

Wheat in particular has been ‘on a rollercoaster’ in terms of price, according to Smith. Hikes of more than 30% over the summer, when milling wheat rose to £190 a tonne from about £140 a few months earlier, fell back on bullish news of US harvests.

Prices are now once again in flux following rumours that Russia may impose limits on its grain exports.

These swings have taken a toll on farmers. Borrowing was already up £300million on last year to nearly £19billion, according to the Bank of England, and expected to rise further.

The extreme weather conditions have meant that food prices have gone up due to poor harvests

The extreme weather conditions have meant that food prices have gone up due to poor harvests

‘The financial impact of this year’s weather is now evident,’ said Anand Dossa, economist at the NFU. ‘We are beginning to see farmers turn to their banks to get loans to tide them over.’

But it’s not just UK farmers that are in dismay when it comes to the economic outlook. German harvests are forecast to be the lowest in 15 years, while Russia and Ukraine, the third and ninth biggest wheat producers globally, have suffered a combination of heavy rains and heatwaves which has lowered the quality.

German farmers are likely to face economic losses of €2.5billion from this year’s weather, according to industry estimates, while the combined drought losses across Europe are estimated at $4billion.

Vegetables such as broccoli need cool weather through the autumn for optimal growth

Vegetables such as broccoli need cool weather through the autumn for optimal growth

Earlier this year, pig farmers were braced for the impact on feed prices, said Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association. She said the impact of the summer’s heat on pig fertility would not be apparent for at least a month, though many farmers said their sows were well used to dealing with heat.

This is while, Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, reported: ‘The biggest issue we are concerned about will be the potential feed shortages in the winter.’

This is in part owing to sheep farmers having to put out feed saved for this winter much earlier than usual, but also the lack of grass growing over the dry summer and, according to Stocker, biomass burners competing with farmers.

The drought could be a smaller threat than Brexit negotiations, according to the National Farmers Union

The drought could be a smaller threat than Brexit negotiations, according to the National Farmers Union

The Met Office is forecasting a 40% chance that temperatures will be above average from September to the end of November.

According to Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, the weather this autumn will be crucial for many vegetables.

‘Brassicas such as cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts need cool weather through the autumn to slow their growth and provide greens for Christmas dinner tables.’

But Smith added that there is only one winner when it comes to the harvest.

‘The weather always has the last laugh, for farmers,’ he said.

However, the ever changing weather is no challenge for the biggest that the farmers are set to face, which is the final Brexit deal.

‘We have a mountain to climb,’ said Ward. ‘It is scary, really scary.’ 

He said a no-deal Brexit next spring could wreak havoc on food imports, as Spain in particular is a key supplier of fresh vegetables to the UK, in the early part of the year.

‘Life was easy under the EU when things moved seamlessly,’ he said. ‘If there is no deal, that comes to a shuddering halt.’

Dossa said long-term confidence among farmers was at an eight-year low, owing to uncertainties over Brexit, and at least a fifth of farmers are intending not to invest in their farms this year as a result.

Food price rises driven by the drought may turn out to be much smaller than those resulting from Brexit, depending on the deal reached with the EU.

Smith noted that UK food prices are still low in historic terms, as in the 1950s households spent about half their disposable income on food, but the variability should make the government take notice. ‘What this year shows is that you can’t take food production, and food supplies, for granted,’ he said. 

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