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East Anglia drought risk forces farmers to switch crops

East Anglian farmers are cutting back on "high-risk" irrigated crops like potatoes, onions and carrots this year in response to the growing threat of a second summer drought.

The region is one of only two in the country still officially in drought - six months after last summer's heatwave left farmers struggling to grow crops in parched fields.

Despite some desperately-needed winter rainfall, the driest February since 1959 has left river flows, groundwater supplies and reservoir levels still worryingly low.

The National Hydrological Monitoring Programme's latest summary says while unsettled March weather has rewetted East Anglian soils, "unseasonably sustained rainfall will be needed during the coming months" to avoid "water resource pressures" in the summer.

And this looming threat has prompted farmers to plant fewer thirsty crops like potatoes, where retail prices no longer justify the rising risks.

North Norfolk grower Tony Bambridge, who chairs the National Farmers’ Union’s regional board for East Anglia, is reducing his potato area by about 10pc, and replacing it with less risky sugar beet, for which prices have risen in recent years.

But he said the reduction will only be in the retail proportion of his crop, as processor customers such as McCain and Bird's Eye have worked to redress the balance between risk and reward.

"We are going to have to ration water this year," he said.

"Even where that is uncertain, we have to assume we have got less water, so we are reducing our area of potatoes and saying we won't be able to irrigate other crops, as we have previously been able to do with malting barley.

"We made the decision to cut back on the basis that we couldn't see how we could extract enough value out of the retailers for the product we are growing.

"We have not cut back our McCain crop, for example, because they have been very responsible, they have recognised the problems farmers have with inflation of fertiliser and energy costs, and they are doing something positive to help us with that challenge.

"But I don't think that help has come from all quarters. So farmers are going to have to make decisions about what they are going to do to recoup those costs and make a profit.

"Unfortunately it means farmers will come out of these high-risk products."

Andrew Blenkiron is director of the Euston Estate near Thetford, where the area planted with irrigated potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips has been reduced by 20pc - also replaced with sugar beet.

Despite winter abstraction from rivers, the estate's two reservoirs are still not full, and only 6mm of rain fell in February, compared to an average of 30-50mm.

"It is all pointing to potentially low prospects for irrigation for the coming season, and everyone is starting to face up to that now," said Mr Blenkiron.

"It was quite an easy decision to reduce irrigated crops - and we are not alone in making that decision, because of the inflationary increases in the cost of energy, tractor fuel and fertiliser.

"We fully depleted our reservoirs and our groundwater borehole licences last year, and the energy just to pump water around cost £230,000 - three times more than usual.

"Why continue to take the risk with no prospect of a return?"

With other growers making similar decisions, Mr Blenkiron said potato shortages are possible.

"It could potentially mean some supply issues if we move through to this time next year and there are not the same potatoes and onions in store," he said. "But if we get a really good year and yields are up 10-20pc then that disappears.

"It all depends on the weather and what water supplies are available."


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