Heatwave has left farmers in ‘crisis’

Heatwave has left farmers in ‘crisis’

11 July 2018

THE unrelenting heatwave is pushing some County Down farmers to crisis point, it has been warned.

Scorching temperatures are set to halve some crop yields locally, with fears of further damage if rain doesn’t come soon.

Cattle farmers and vegetable growers are among the worst hit in what is the driest corner of Northern Ireland.

With the warmest June recorded since 1846, local farmers explained that the current heatwave came on top of a difficult winter and late spring. With today bringing the first hope of some rain in weeks, they are hoping for swift relief.

John Carson farms mostly cattle at his Ballyrenan farm outside Downpatrick, where his family have been based for 60 years. It is a largely organic farm.

“Northern Ireland is not used to such extremes,” he said. “This is a really extreme situation and a  worrying situation.

“The grass has completely stopped growing here in County Down. Other counties are doing quite well so far; it is good to see that. But we are in the driest part of Northern Ireland. Our rainfall is normally lower. We have 30 to 32 inches of rain on average annually — across Northern Ireland it is 45.

“From Dundrum, across to the Ards Peninsula, right round the area that the Down Recorder covers, really seems to be the worst affected.

“I would really go as far to say that here in this part of County Down we are in a drought situation. If you go out into the fields around here they are barren. Of course, this is a problem across the UK, not only in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Carson said his animals were currently using second cut silage for feed, which is normally kept for winter.

“Anyone who looks after animals has to be prepared for rain, hail or snow,” he said. “If the rain does not come within three or four weeks I would be worried. I always like to be a glass half full kind of person. You have to live in hope. I would just be worried where we would be in a few weeks. We are really just on a cliff edge.”

Mr Carson said he feared some farming businesses, especially some of the smaller ones, could be heading for trouble.

“Very much so,” he said. “There are businesses threatened at the present time.

“There will be people for whom this will tip them over the edge. We are at the tipping point now.

“There is a bit of the growing season to go but there are still financial implications.”

Mr Carson stressed this was a “very serious message” that farmers wanted to convey.

“I do think the government needs to provide some support,” he said. “Maybe with no minister in place, though, it would be difficult. We certainly need an Executive up and running.”

He added: “Eventually this will hit the consumer. The financial impact will be on everybody not just the farmers. The cost is going to go into the food.”

Mr Carson said he also appreciated that it wasn’t just farmers affected by the hot spell.

“It has been hard for farmers and growers and gardeners and pet owners and anybody with health problems,” he said. “As a farmer I don’t really like complaining about the weather because we don’t really get enough of it. It is nice to have the barbeque and all those things.

“But there is big suffering and the most expensive winter lies ahead.

“I can remember way back in the early seventies there was a drought situation. But over the last 25 years I have never faced anything like this before.”

John McCann is managing director of Willowbrook Foods. This fresh food producer and processing company is based on the McCann farm in Killinchy, where the family have farmed for over

200 years.

Mr McCann explained that trouble had been stored up for farmers earlier in the year.

“We had a very difficult spring,” he said. “We had the ‘Beast from the East’ with the cold, cold weather. Everything got off to a very bad start. It was looking bad to start with and things have gone from bad to worse.

“Seeds have to germinate and they cannot come up in this heat.”

While mainly producing vegetables, Mr McCann said his family also kept sheep on Trasnagh island on Strangford Lough.

“Last week we had to take them off the island as there was nothing for them to eat,”w he said.

“We brought them home. Lighter soil on the islands means there is very little vegetation.”

Mr McCann said they were growing potatoes, cabbages, parsley, celery, broccoli and cauliflower on their farm and that every crop would be affected.

“Going forward, this autumn and winter vegetables are going to be very scarce,” he said.

“Even if starts to rain a lot of the damage is done. Some might come back.

“England is as bad, if not worse. Always it is the the east coast here that is worst affected.

“We are also food processors. We would buy from about 20 other farmers. We are all in the same boat.

“If it goes on another three or four weeks, I can’t imagine. I think it would be 50% down in yield and quota.

“Holland, France, Germany and Poland are also suffering. The last time this happened was 1976 to 77. I was very young then but it was very similar to this.”

Mr McCann is not hopeful of any financial assistance for farmers in the current climate.

“We have not really got good government,” he said.”I don’t really think there is the money to do it. As vegetable growers I do not think we will get any assistance.”

“I started farming when I was 23, now I am 75. These last six weeks are the worst I have seen. I  understand that people not involved in farming would never think about it but our supermarkets and backers have to take on board the situation.”