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Floods deal another blow to struggling Dorset farmers

By Blackmore Vale Magazine  |  Posted: November 30, 2012

Flooded fields in Hammoon where the River Stour burst its banks this week (Photo: Clive Davidson)

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As homeowners and highways officials count the cost of repairs following this week’s extensive flooding, local farmers fear it could take the industry years to recover from months of bad weather.

With countless farming businesses threatened by failed crops and spiralling feed prices, David Heath MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, has suggested that he may resort to a statutory agreement between producers and retailers to ensure that food prices reflect the true cost of production.

Anthony Knott of Ralph Down Farm in Sturminster Newton still has hundreds of acres of crops underwater.

“It is a nightmare. We still have wheat in fields that should have been harvested. It is totally ruined and looks like it was planted in a river - you could only get to it in a boat,” he said.

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“We also have thousands of pounds worth of seeds in bags that should have been planted two months ago but my fields are underwater. Many of us are 80 per cent down on last year’s harvest. It is going to bankrupt a lot of farmers.”

According to Mr Knott, mechanisms should be put in place so farmers are paid a price that properly reflects the cost of production.

“Supermarkets are stopping us from earning a proper living. They are bringing the industry to its knees. It is very, very sad,” he added.

NFU representative Ruth Kimber, who farms at Higher Stavordale, near Wincanton, explained that the impact of the recent floods was compounded by a bad summer.

She explained that a poor harvest has resulted in livestock farmers paying as much as 30 per cent more for feed. A lack of sunshine resulted in feed crops with depleted energy levels and farmers are struggling to keep milk and meat yields up as a result.

“There is no way of insuring against it - we just have to take it on the chin,” she explained.

“Food has been too cheap for too long so there’s nothing in the bank for farmers to turn to when something like this happens. It is very worrying - the future looks very difficult for the farming world.

“In many cases, the cost of production is not being covered. Unless buyers were to pay considerably more so farmers can supplement feed with higher energy and protein feed, they can’t afford to feed their cows to increase their yield.”

Matthew Price, senior agent at NFU Mutual in Sturminster Newton, said dairy farmers with herds of around 200 cattle could be facing losses of tens of thousands of pounds as a result of reduced yields.

“It has been one of the worst weather years from a farming perspective in recent memory,” he said.

Commenting on damage done to ground where farmers have been able to harvest crops, Mrs Kimber added: “There is a lot of work to be done to repair fields after getting crops in during such terrible conditions. It has not been uncommon to see two tractors pulling a forage harvester through a field.”

Castle Cary based farming contractor Nick Weeks said things could get worse because the saturated ground is making it difficult for farmers to plant crops for next year.

“The ground is just too wet. In many cases it is physically impossible to get machinery on the land,” he said.

“The land needs a lot of drying out but it just keeps raining. Even with perfect conditions, it would take at least three weeks to get machinery on the ground and seeds in on several of the farms where I work.”

David Heath MP, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, told the Blackmore Vale Magazine that, although there is no form of compensation for farmers when crops fail and the cost of production rockets, he would like to see fair payments that reflect farmers’ costs especially for the dairy sector.

“The situation is very worrying. Some farmers in Somerset have had land under water for the best part of six months. They can’t graze animals, can’t cut grass and can’t plant for next year. It is squeezing them very hard indeed,” he said.

“It would be wrong of me to pretend that there is any compensation in the short-term. There are no easy options and that is one of the reasons why we have to get the contract between producers, processors and supermarkets on a fairer basis. When inputs go up for producers, you would expect the price of a product to go up to retailers.

“We are making progress in terms of a voluntary code. Many major retailers have signed up but it remains to be seen if it will stick. If we can’t make the voluntary code work, I will have no hesitation in putting something into law.”

Mathew Manning

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