U.K.’s Wettest-Ever February Is Turning Farm Fields Into Lakes
(Bloomberg) -- British farmer Richard Bramley should be about to plant barley and sugar beet on his land near York. Instead, he’s watching the waves roll over his flooded fields.
Bramley, like other growers across the U.K., had been hoping to catch a break after heavy rains spoiled grain plantings late last year. But the wettest-ever February has submerged fields, making it impossible to run tractors and raising the risk that some farmland will lay empty this season.
“A third of our land is underneath that lake,” Bramley said at a National Farmers Union event in Birmingham, joking that his 500-acre farm was more apt for surfing than sowing. “My father is 81 and he’s never known anything like it. It’s a struggle getting hold of seed to sow a spring crop, assuming we can.”
The deluge is the latest bout of extreme weather for northern Europe’s breadbasket this season. Farmers were frustrated by a soggy fall that cut wheat plantings, but were spared frost damage by record warmth in winter. While spring offers a window to plant more later-sown crops, like barley, recent storms left farmers unsure of whether they can finish seeding in time.
Three major storms hit the U.K. last month, capping the country’s fifth-wettest winter. The record rains burst river banks, disrupted travel and damaged thousands of homes. Swathes of England and Wales remain under flood alerts.
Although the adverse weather shouldn’t make much of a dent in global grains output -- partly as bigger harvests in eastern Europe offset some of the losses -- it’s shaking up regional supplies. A smaller wheat crop could turn the U.K. back into a net importer of the grain and the government has cautioned that extreme conditions are becoming more frequent with climate change.
For the European Union, wheat production may drop about 5% this year and there could be a glut of barley if remaining fields get seeded properly this spring.
France’s winter-wheat crop is in the worst condition since at least 2011 and spring-barley plantings -- ideally completed by mid-March -- are at half last year’s pace. Above-normal rains are expected across most of northern Europe this week, adding to moisture concerns, forecaster Maxar said Friday.
“We are waiting for dry weather,” said Nathan Cordier, an analyst at French farm adviser Agritel. “It’s not a very good situation.”
British growers have had a particularly tough time. Wheat output may be the smallest in at least two decades after one of the wettest periods on record, and fields need time to dry before they can bear farm equipment.
“The land is so sodden -- tractors have been getting stuck and harvesters bogged down to the axles,” said Andrew Ward, a farmer in Lincoln, England. He started planting wheat months later than usual in February and will devote more land than normal to spring crops.
Rains have been so heavy that a 40-meter wide river near Stephen Watkins’s farm in the West Midlands now spans 1 kilometer (0.6 mile), submerging a third of his fields, flooding the local pub and causing church pews to float.
“It’s going to be early April before we’re going to be planting on it, which is three weeks after I’d like,” said Watkins, who grows wheat, vegetables and sugar beet. “Yields will definitely be down.”
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