‘We need reservoirs built’: drought leaves UK farms begging for government aid

It last rained on the Euston Estate, near Thetford in Suffolk, a fortnight ago, although the 6mm that fell evaporated almost immediately on contact with the parched earth. Before that, the farm hadn’t seen any rain since June, said Andrew Blenkiron, director of the estate belonging to Henry FitzRoy, 12th Duke of Grafton.

“It has been so dry since April. Some days we only had rain at one end of the farm,” Blenkiron said. The 15mm that fell in July was a third of the usual total.

The hot weather meant winter wheat and barley could be harvested early on the estate’s 2,428 hectares (6,000 acres) of farmed land. But it also meant lower yields: wheat was down by a quarter, and barley by 10%, although higher prices helped soften the blow. The lack of water is critical for crops still in the ground – onions, potatoes, sugar beet – and for livestock including cattle and pigs.

The latest heatwave has made things worse. When the Observer visited on a scorching August day, the sun was beating down as the pigs sought relief in troughs of mud. Cattle in three of the four fields were already being fed straw – three months earlier than usual.

“We started feeding them straw three weeks ago when we had those extreme temperatures,” Blenkiron said. “That’s what nailed the grass and finished it off completely.”

The drought is just the latest challenge for UK food producers, who are also grappling with soaring costs for feed, tractor fuel and fertiliser, as well as shortages of workers.

It’s not necessarily about yield – it’s also about quality. If you don’t water potatoes, they get scab and aren’t marketable

Andrew Blenkiron

In an onion field, Blenkiron let a handful of fine, dusty earth trickle through his fingers. The farm is in Breckland, an area on the Suffolk-Norfolk border known for its sandy soil, which sits on a chalk aquifer. Such soil is great for root vegetables – including carrots, potatoes and sugar beet – but challenging in dry spells as it doesn’t hold any water.

Most crops grown on the estate are sold to supermarkets; the sugar beet travels 11 miles down the road to British Sugar’s Bury St Edmunds factory, and can end up in Coca-Cola, Cadbury chocolate or bagged under the Silver Spoon brand.

The onions are due to be harvested at the end of the month. Most of them have reached the size specified by supermarkets, but they are watered every three days, twice as often as usual, so they don’t dry out.

Blenkford is worried about the sugar beet, which is harvested later. The fields are irrigated with water from one of the farm’s two reservoirs, which cost about £1m to build, money the business is still repaying. Together, the reservoirs can hold 818m litres; the estate is also licenced to take water from the river and has a borehole. But despite this, the farm has used all its usual annual water quota, plus 25% of that reserved for next year. The “danger deep water” signs by its smaller reservoir look comical, as the huge hole currently contains less than 50cm of water, about 5% of its filled depth.

Blenkiron, who traces his love of the land to the upland farm run by his grandparents in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire, has run the estate for 11 years. “The big concern is that we get a dry winter,” he said. “If we don’t get much rain, it doesn’t soak into the aquifer, and the river doesn’t start to flow.”

A lack of rain could force the farm to plant fewer crops next year. “We dare not plant a crop if we can’t guarantee that we’ve got water to keep it functioning through the summer,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about yield, it’s also about quality. If you don’t water potatoes at the right time, they develop scab and aren’t marketable.”

Rain is also vital for softening the ground before harvest, to prevent further damage to the soil, and stop metal tools and machinery from wearing down quickly.

Related: Soil healing and olive growing: how UK farms are coping with looming drought

Blenkiron wants a hosepipe ban in East Anglia, which is home to many food producers, and is one of eight areas in England where drought was declared by the Environment Agency last week. Anglian Water, which supplies 7 million people in eastern England, said it was not planning a ban. A spokesperson said the company was monitoring the situation, but had resilience in place for dry weather.

Farmers across the country have been sharing their worries with the National Farmers’ Union, whose president, Minette Batters, has called on the Tory leadership candidates to set out emergency water plans to tackle wastage.

Blenkiron wants to see changes to the planning system, to expedite the construction of water storage facilities on farms: “We need reservoirs built next summer, to fill up the following winter.”