Jeremy's Blog 17th November 2023: Farming Consequences of Weather
This article by Jeremy Moody first appeared in the CAAV e-Briefing of 16th November 2023
At least the UK does not have volcanoes. Iceland, a land still being forged in fire, is watching in awe at the risk of an eruption 25 miles from its capital, evacuating a town before its destruction. In Europe’s other volcanic area, the Phlegraean Fields near Naples and Vesuvius have just had a 4.2 earthquake. Here, we are only following Iceland in the more benign search for geothermal energy prospects in Cornwall (with what may be Europe’s strongest lithium concentration as a co-product).
Chiming with the long-held international view of our islands, we have had rain. Most areas have rain at length and in volume throughout October and since. A succession of early named storms has brought intense local downpours creating flooding. Still further water falling on saturated land results in surface flooding, prolonging waterlogging. Northen Ireland notes wryly that it succeeded in cutting the Belfast/Dublin motorway.
We are not alone. Northern France has taken more of at least two of the recent storms. 2023 has seen serious flooding across Europe from Cork to Georgia, including the key Greek agricultural are of Thessaly, while Slovene valuers refer to the August “catastrofalnih”. Farming in many areas was already vulnerable after periods of extended drought, another facet of the volatile weather brought by climate change. We anyway have the loss of production from Ukraine where the war continues.
We may now be able to take a little stock of the impact on our farming. The immediate effect is on autumn operations, whether the establishment of winter crops or the harvesting of potatoes, brassica, maize and other crops while there is wider damage to fodder stocks, not only the Scottish silage bales washed into the North Sea. Land operations become more difficult and expensive, if not at times impossible.
That brings further economic effects, notably at a time when UK grain prices are already thought higher, perhaps £20/t higher, than would see exports. Winter crops have been lost, re-establishment bringing costs and lower yields while recalibrating thoughts about the value of old crop. The already reduced area of roots cropping will generally see still lower output and quality issues. Cash flow, working capital and January’s tax payments will be on famers minds.
It also bears on soil status. Faced with the high fertiliser prices of earlier last year, farmers have hoped to rely on nutrients already in the land, past higher indices. This autumn’s rain may have seen that experiment run its course in many areas. Where precision farming has been adopted, its nutrient efficiency may not only mean less run-off but also less carry-over in the soil, leaving less in reserve. Some may benefit from new silt but waterlogged soils and erosion will often have depleted what reserves might still be there and damaged soil structures. Others have rubble, pollution and lost fences. Much now depends on how the weather continues as we move from autumn to winter.
Again, we face the challenge of our age – managing business in the face of increasing risks and needing resilience. An observation wider than farming is that we may now have more value at risk on finer margins with disruption incurring more costs. For farming, with its history of adapting in times of adversity, this will typically means searching for productivity improvement, financial margin and resilience.