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Bountiful harvest is hit by 'diabolical' weather woes

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 06, 2012

Riverford Foods owner Guy Watson with this year's good crop of artichokes Picture: Richard Austin

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Guy Watson should be in buoyant mood as Riverford Organics marks 25 years – but the anniversary has been overshadowed by the worst harvest he has ever experienced.

At this time of year, the team should be picking a bountiful array of produce, but months of wet and humid weather has left fields full of damp and fungus-ridden crops. Potato yields are down by two-thirds, onions by a third and the more sun-loving fruit and vegetables are stunted or rotten.

"It has been an absolutely diabolical year – without question the worst in 25 years of growing vegetables," Mr Watson said.

Riverford enjoys a growing reputation, with deliveries to 40,000 homes across the country from its four UK sister farms, and enough products to fill a buffet winning prizes in this year's Soil Association awards. But the company is operating in a climate which makes the planning element of organic farming harder than ever, with fickle and extreme weather delivering torrential rain when sun is needed, or drought when farmers are praying for moisture.

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It is a particularly bleak picture for organic farmers, who cannot use chemicals such as fungicide to mitigate the damage, and also struggle with weed control when the sun is not drying out roots which are mechanically exposed.

Mr Watson emphasised that the company could still meet its box scheme requirements, by sourcing produce from its farms elsewhere in the country which have suffered from less rain.

But he said the growing team now faced the unenviable task of trying to predict next year's weather whims.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen, and whether we are going to see even more of these extreme weather events.

"In the past we have been able to plan ahead, and plant on higher ground when it's likely to be wet, for example. But in the last few years, it's all become a lot less predictable, and that's a real problem for all farmers, but particularly vegetable growers.

"We grow a lot of crops that are on their climate extremes, because that's what our customers want to buy. Tomatoes, squash, sweetcorn and pumpkins would all be a lot happier 200 to 300 miles further south."

Some hardier crops, such as swede, parsnips and leeks, have fared better, but the extent of the damage is such that farmers are considering planting fewer of some crops next year, as well as trialling hardier species. Mr Watson said: "There is a feeling of caution and a desire to avoid the more risky crops. I suspect a few will reduce their acreage of veg but most of our growers are remaining positive, with some thinking about investing in tunnels and drainage for high value crops to reduce the risk."

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