All over the UK, farmers look to the sky and beg for rain.
Some areas of southern England, where much of the country’s food is grown, have not had significant rainfall since June. This has put a lot of pressure on this year’s crop, but next year it could be even worse. The soil in much of the country is too dry to sow, and many crops harvested later this year and next year must be sown in late October to be viable.
The cattle are now getting winter supplies of hay as the grass has dried up and there is nothing left to eat, raising fears that they will have to be slaughtered early in the winter if the food runs out.
The amount of water needed for crops this year has also increased due to the lack of rain, so farmers have emptied reservoirs. Statistics from the UK Center of Ecology and Hydrology show that bringing rivers and reservoirs to normal levels next year will require months of above-average rainfall.
Martin Lines, the UK chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, mainly grows winter cereals on his Cambridgeshire farm. He said: “We are seeing the effects of the drought on our spring crops we are currently harvesting and reduced crop yields. Many farmers growing vegetables are out of water and see crop potential being lost.
“We should be planting our next rapeseed crops right now, but there is no moisture in the soil to allow them to germinate and grow. With the current crisis in Ukraine, this could mean a further cut in vegetable oil production next year.
“We need government and supply chains to act and take our changing climate and drought more seriously. We have invested too little in water management and storage for far too long. We see that crops are thrown away because they have not been sized correctly due to the weather. We need all the edible crops to reach the table and supply chains and consumers need to change the demand for great looking products.”
Some farmers have managed – so far – to protect themselves from the worst effects of the dry weather by adopting nature-friendly farming methods.
Heal the soil
Pete Thompson runs Brook Farm in Essex, one of the driest parts of the country. He grows vegetables, mainly cabbages and spring onions. After a few years of trying to improve the soil structure so that it retains moisture better, he says he has almost succeeded in keeping things going.
In recent decades, farmers have grown crops in fields, then harvested, then plowed, then seeded, then harvested and plowed again, which means that organic matter is taken out of the soil, degrading its quality. Thompson has ensured that crop residues remain in the soil, decay and improve its quality.
“You can see a noticeable difference in yield in the fields where organic matter has been put back in, which are ground covers and the way we grow our crops, we process quite a bit of crop residue and are constantly trying to build up organic matter,” he said.
“Where that has not happened, you have seen that the crops have not done so well. The decomposing plant material helps the soil structure.”
However, he is still having trouble sowing next year’s crop. “Now we have problems with costs and planning because we have to irrigate both before and after drilling because the soil is so dry.”
Jake Freestone, a regenerative farmer from Tewkesbury in the Cotswolds, told the Guardian he found a temperature difference of 10°C between cover soil and organic matter and soil cover. He says the methods he uses make the soil act like a “huge sponge,” retaining water and requiring less irrigation.
Growing Olives in Essex
Thompson grows olives on the slopes of his farm, hoping that the tree’s roots will help combat soil erosion. They could also potentially be a viable crop as the climate warms. “We have an olive project, a long-term project to identify suitable varieties for the UK. We have picked olives and this year’s crop is looking good – they thrive in hot, dry conditions. It looks quite Mediterranean at the moment. also works by planting trees on slopes where we have had soil erosion problems – they have reduced soil erosion and it helps biodiversity.”
Shelter for sheep
Many of the farmers the Guardian spoke to have reaped the benefits of the hedges and trees they have planted. Animals have faced heat stress at high temperatures, but farmers who have planted trees for biodiversity have found they have provided shade to their livestock.
Jo Cartwright, who runs Swillington Organic Farm in Leeds, found that her cattle could rest from the heat under trees. “We have a lot of natural shelter from trees that the cattle spend a lot of time under in hot weather,” she said. “The downside of this, however, is flying,” she added.
Patricia Prabhu, a Welsh sheep farmer, said: “The sheep have been able to shelter from the heat under the overhanging branches of trees and hedges I have planted.”
Natural grasses and revegetated areas
While traditional grasses have suffered from the heat due to the thin soil and short stature of the plants, farmers who have diversified their landscapes to include old pastures and grasslands, and have not had overgrazing, have found they can manage without supplemental nutrition.
Cartwright said, “I’ve cut inventory rates” [the density of animals on the land] last year and though the grass dries up, [have] did not have to give additional feed. Part of the farm consists of swamp or rough grazing that withstands drought conditions well.”
Tim Jury, who runs Freshwinds at Pickham Farm in Hastings, uses mob grazing to keep his grasses long and of high quality. This method is about mimicking nature, so doing what bison and other large ruminants did when the land was still wild. The land is grazed for a short time by a high density of animals and then given a long rest period. This allows the grasses to be fertilized by their manure and start growing, resulting in many different heights of vegetation, which is good for biodiversity.
“Mob grazing protected the soil surface and allowed the calves to find cooler temperatures at ground level. Newly planted trees didn’t make it, but we’ll try again this winter,” he said.