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Farming in the long hot summer

View profile for Edward Worthy
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Many of us have enjoyed a blissful summer of warm days and balmy nights. Even those of us who dislike the heat have appreciated brighter skies and sunny weekends with the family. For farmers, though, the story is altogether different and the consequences of the 2018 heatwave are more severe than the odd broken night’s sleep or sunburn on the back of your neck.

What impact has the heatwave had?

The heatwave has affected every area of farming. Arable farmers have faced difficulty supplying enough water to their crops, despite direction from Defra allowing farmers to supplement their irrigation with river water. Water shortage causes stress, and ultimately loss of the crop.  Even if there is enough water, high temperatures mean watering at the wrong time of day will cause damage to the plants. Other crops, such as oilseed rape, mature more quickly in times of drought, leading to an early harvest. This may not seem like a problem, but the early maturation means a lower yield, which in turn means less money for an already stretched industry.

Livestock farming is struggling too. As well as the consequence of less feed for autumn and winter, water shortage can have an immediate impact on the animal’s welfare because of dehydration. While most farmers have a plan B, and take measures such as reducing the amount of feed or ending egg production to avoid dehydration, a prolonged water shortage will ultimately lead to the death of an animal.

Defra guidelines reluctantly advocate humane killing of animals over allowing them to suffer dehydration. Lack of food and water means stock animals such as cattle have to be finished sooner. This leads to lower weight, lower yield, and again, a lower return. The knock-on effect of having to use silage during dry periods, while nothing is growing to replace it, will be felt long through autumn and winter and possibly into next spring.

All of this comes on top of one of the coldest winters and wettest springs in recent years. For farmers, the weather has quite literally been a ‘perfect storm’ of cause and effect.

What impact is this having on farmers? 

The combination of poor production and unpredictability is devastating some businesses. Small margins mean that eating into winter feed for livestock can wipe out profit, while buying in feed means that any capital the farmer has is falling at an alarming rate. Arable crops dying off, or being harvested with a low percentage of water means lower yield for an industry that is already facing uncertainty through changes to available EU support. Farmers have been adapting to industry changes for many years, but the impact of unpredictable weather is causing significant financial difficulty.

What is in place to help farmers manage their debt?

The NFU has a comprehensive debt advice service, and offers Payplan, a debt management program that is tailored specifically to the needs of farmers. Farmers can undertake Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVAs) or informal debt management plan. There is also a special plan for self-employed farmers. An IVA spreads the debt over a period of months, with an understanding that the creditors will write off any outstanding amount after the final repayment, protecting the farmer against increases in interest rates. An informal debt management plan is a simple agreement between farmer and creditor for a series of monthly payments to clear the debt. It’s essential that farmers contact an insolvency expert for advice and to help them decide the best way to manage their debt.

Farming is the lifeblood of the country, not only providing food, but the managed green spaces we all enjoy and claim as our green and pleasant land. Increased debt means increased numbers of farmers abandoning the industry. This will have consequences that last far beyond the pleasure of a long hot summer.

Edward Worthy and his agricultural law team would be pleased to hear from you with any farming related queries on 01245 228124 or worthye@gepp.co.uk    

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.