Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: A perfect storm

Agnes, Babet, Ciaran and Debi have recently revealed the fragility of farm life
December 6, 2023

What do Agnes, Babet, Ciaran and Debi have in common?

Well, they’re all names that I will not be giving my children. Or my dog, for that matter. They’re names that are not welcome in my household, and yet they’ve made their intrusive presence known in recent weeks. They are, of course, the increasingly unusual names given by the weather forecasters to the storms that have battered our coastline, ravaged our towns and drowned my fields.

Each struck worst in different parts of the UK, generously doling out misery to Northern Ireland and Wales (Debi and Agnes); southern England (Ciaran); and the east of England and poor Scotland (Babet), the last of which was nearly sunk. 

It was Babet that our farm fell victim to—on Friday 20th October we saw 65.8mm (2.6 inches) of rain, with nearly 12mm (or just under half an inch!) falling in one hour. The roads were flooded, ditches were full and the sheep were distinctly unimpressed. As was I. I was worried that recently sown fields would be wastelands, and that any planned planting would be cancelled until spring. That month was one of the stormiest Octobers on record in the UK, and the three days of Storm Babet, from the 18th to 21st October, were the wettest three days in a row in England and Wales since 1891. 

On the farm, we’ve been working to improve our soils in recent years, making them more resilient to extreme weather. We’ve been reducing our tillage to improve soil structure, and growing unharvested “cover crops” through the winter to hold up water and retain goodness. Interestingly, gardeners employ similar techniques, calling it “green manure” as plants take up and hold nutrients through the winter and release them as they die off in the spring. We have left harvest straw residue on the surface of the field to protect the soil from heavy rainfall. These measures have definitely made a difference.

But despite this, the strongest defences and healthiest soils can be overrun by the sheer volume of water. During Storm Babet, some parts of Scotland received 150 to 200mm of rain and many areas to the east of Scotland recorded the highest-ever monthly rainfall figures for October. No precautions could defend against this level of rain—we saw videos of silage bales being washed out to sea, flood defences breached and sadly several lives lost.

The Met Office has announced the full roster of potential storm names for the 2023 to 2024 season

For farmers, however, the fallout has only just begun. Recently, in a group on social media, I saw respected farmers writing about crops lost, soils damaged, and their concerns for the impacts on the harvest next year. Potential knock-on effects on grain markets and straw availability could drive up on-shelf prices for food items from bread to beef. 

What makes matters worse is that weather—despite being a favoured topic of conversation for those of us making a living from the land—is not the only pressure on farmers. In the last harvest year, the cost of fertiliser reached record highs after fuel prices spiked in part due to Putin’s war in Ukraine, but by the time harvest rolled around, grain prices were back down again. This means that farmers are approaching this winter with low cash reserves, or—more likely—very high overdrafts. In a recent conversation with an accountant, she told me of her grave concerns for where her farming clients will be financially by this time next year, when another year of higher input costs and lower market prices for our produce could put even more resilient farm businesses in danger. 

You see, there’s a lot going on for farmers, and so a named storm serving up a few extra millimetres of rain might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A recent survey on mental health in farming produced worrying results, as only 8 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men said they had good mental wellbeing, and farmers have a historically high suicide rate compared with other professions. We’re isolated, we’re stressed and we’re vulnerable.

The Met Office has announced the full roster of potential storm names for the 2023 to 2024 season, right through to “W” for Walid, which would be the name of the 23rd storm (please no!). So, if you hear Fergus, Gerrit, Henk or Isha named in the forecast in the coming weeks, spare a thought for us farmers, the 1 per cent of the nation battling the beastly weather to feed the 99 per cent. We appreciate your thanks, but, more than that, we need your support so we can still be here next year, stewarding soils and holding back floodwater from your homes. Just another service that we provide