Last year, asparagus growers were harvesting as early as 8 April. This spring, they are not expecting to harvest their open-field crop until the last week of April – a week later than the official start of the season, St George’s Day, 23 April. Welcome to just one of the consequences of Britain’s disastrously delayed spring.
“We have had a very challenging time,” said Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). “March breezed in with the ‘beast from the east’ and went out with the worst bank holiday on record.” For asparagus-lovers there is at least an upside. “The combination has to be right for the crowns to push through,” explained Per Hogberg, of grower Wealmoor. “The air temperature has to be at least 12C, while the soil temperature should be between 8C and 10C. With warmer weather expected, consumers can expect a bumper crop in mid-May,” he said.
It is not just asparagus growers praying for a warm, dry spell. The earlier farmers can sow, the more chance their crops have to achieve their potential. “My father was a farmer and one of his sayings was ‘a peck of dust in March was worth a king’s ransom’,” Smith said. “If the ground is nice and friable and makes a good seed-bed then it can be potentially quite lucrative for the farmer. Well, that’s gone this year.”
Farmers griping about the weather goes with the job. But Smith fears something is happening to Britain’s weather that has consequences which stretch far beyond #farming.
“We farm in north-east Essex, in the driest spot in the British Isles, and so we’re keen observers of the British weather. More often now we seem to be stuck in long periods of wet months and then long periods of dry months, which is more challenging for farmers.”
Adam Lockwood grows spring onions in the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire. “At the minute we’re struggling to get going,” he said. “Potato growers haven’t even started planting yet and drilling dates are well behind where they should be.
“We’re lucky in one sense that what we’re doing is all seed. I can buy seed and put it in a shed and it doesn’t matter, but lettuce and brassica growers who have plants raised in a nursery that were ready weeks ago, they’re now having to throw those away.”
Like Smith, Lockwood thinks that the climate is changing. “We’re getting more rain in a shorter period rather than evenly distributed across the year – that’s what I’m noticing. And you’re getting more intense dry periods. It’s more extreme.”
Livestock and dairy producers have been particularly hard hit. “It’s been a very late spring, even for a hill farm where we are,” said Richard Findlay, chair of the NFU’s livestock board, who farms in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.