Alan White: Weather issues for UK farmers mean support is needed more than ever

News reports have warned of increasing prices for consumers in respect of virtually all farm produce as a result of the very warm, dry spell the UK has had over recent months, following on from the extreme snowfall earlier in the year.

Alan White is a Partner, Land and Rural Business, with Gillespie Macandrew
Alan White is a Partner, Land and Rural Business, with Gillespie Macandrew

The late cold snap meant that most farmers were “late” in being able to get on with field work, so crops were late being sown. The unusually prolonged dry spell which followed meant that spring growth was very poor.

But why does this affect consumers? The immediate issue is that with little or no growth, farmers have had to supplement livestock feed, in many cases buying in additional feed from elsewhere. Of course cash is a finite resource for any business, and buying that additional feed to keep animals alive during the winter means that the business will have to find savings elsewhere. Farm margins are, however, very narrow, and the increased cost of production must be shared by producers, processors, wholesalers, and eventually consumers.

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The lack of rainfall has also resulted in much lower yields of vegetable and cereal crops, meaning there is less of the commodity available, which, in market conditions, means price rises.

But it isn’t just an immediate problem; cereal crops, particularly barley, are a major constituent of animal feed. Lower cereal yields, along with a poor silage crop, will mean that the coming winter will be a testing time for farmers.

One farmer commented to me that he had about half the silage he would usually have, and is pinning his hopes on late growth and being able to keep the stock out later in the year. Some are already disposing of breeding stock in anticipation of not being able to feed them over the coming winter, others are rationalising their whole business.

Meanwhile, although not widely commented on, the fact is that there were significant sheep mortality rates in some areas over the winter, and there are correspondingly lower numbers of lambs this year than normal.

What can be done? Farmers already rely on government support mechanisms to give them a degree of flexibility to deal with fluctuating prices, but the combination of events which the UK has experienced this year are such that no farm business will be unaffected.

All of this comes ahead of the dreaded “B” word, with no real certainty over future tariffs and other export barriers which might have adverse effects on UK farmers’ ability to sell their produce into Europe and the global market. There is also very little detail on what government support might be available to UK farmers in the medium term after Brexit. Equally it is uncertain what tariffs or regulations might be applied to imported produce from Europe or elsewhere, and the effect on retail prices those might have.

Consumers can, however, do their bit by continuing to support domestic farmers and growers by seeking out and buying locally sourced produce wherever possible, whether that is by buying “Scotch” or “produced in the UK” goods in a major supermarket chain or by buying direct from a local farm shop or farmer’s market.

Alan White is a partner, land and rural business, with Gillespie Macandrew