Gone to seed

Alan Schofield and Debra Schofield from Growing With Nature in Pilling are suffering their worst and wettest growing season.
Alan Schofield and Debra Schofield from Growing With Nature in Pilling are suffering their worst and wettest growing season.
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The heavy rain has left the Fylde’s farming flatlands in crisis.

Bales of hay still stand in sodden fields, likely to spoil if contaminated by drainage water, and unable to be go for bedding or fodder. Even sealed hay can develop mould if left out.

Farmers are selling livestock to offset extra feed costs. It may bring a glut of cheap meat to market but means higher prices long term if farms sell up or meat is at a premium.

Others have cut staff, crops, produce, customer base and the distance travelled to sell.

Some crops rot where they stand, from the saturated roots up. Some local harvests of potatoes have failed.

Pilling organic produce pioneers Alan and Debra Schofield have been at the vanguard of the movement nationally for 30 years.

Now he’s back to basics, digging in to supply 300 local homes, rather than further afield than the Fylde, Lancaster and Preston.

His business Growing with Nature is battling rain which has ruined crucial crops. Some have been salvaged but nowhere near the usual numbers.

Alan admits: “We’ve been hit very hard.”

The pair, part of a national alliance of 250 commercial organic growers, have already downsized, cut costs, staff, hours, and customer base.

“When the recession struck five years ago demand for organic produce dropped heavily as people cut bills,” adds Alan.

“We decided to concentrate on purely local deliveries. We cut more or less everything else.

“This year started reasonably, March and April cold but dry, so we got early cultivation done, crops planted. Then as we started to harvest in June it started to rain and rain and rain. The crops sat in water.

“We’ve had 50 per cent losses on potatoes, relatively easy things to grow. Cauliflowers and broccoli have been completed wiped out. I picked enough for four meals the other day when we should be supplying 300 homes.

“The squash crop is down too. Onions have done well thanks to good seed beds planted early, and we sure as heck haven’t had to irrigate this year.

“I’ve had the last of the crop from people who supply me from September to March.

“You don’t cope, you struggle like crazy when costs touch £20k and you’re getting £2k-£3k income. We are in a high risk low reward industry with no help.

“We need the Government to help us out. The National Farmers Union does an exceptionally good job of promoting red meat but veg growers get no help. Growers, in their 60s and 70s, even from traditionally dry areas, haven’t known conditions like it.

“One man who supplies £1m of produce to a supermarket each week may lose his contract because he can’t make supplies. He has a wage bill of £159k.

“At least we don’t have that cloud over us. It’s our 30th year in veg production over Wyre and we do it because we believe the day will come when people cotton on that a vegetable based diet is far healthier than milk and meat.

“But five years ago our world just dropped off the end of a cliff and we’ve been hanging on ever since. We’ve cut back, laid some staff off, cut hours.

“We’re managing, thanks to an acre of polythene tunnels, and the goodwill of customers who understand.”

Lytham dairy farmer Andrew Pemberton of Birks Farm, Ballam, says he’s sold cattle to offset costs.

He fears that over development of land for housing is forcing flooding of farmland ditches and water course, particularly since cutbacks have reduced maintenance of drainage systems. He adds: “Winter’s come early. I’ve moved most of the cows in early causing an extended period of extended costs.

“I’ve sold more cattle than I’ve ever done in my life to offset the effect - keeping the ones that give me a return rather than cost me fodder.

“It’s all about eking out winter reserves. If I don’t provide a buffer now I could lose milk production next year. I have 140 milk cows, and had 120 followers, different sorts, beef cross, not in the dairy herd. That’s down to 80 now. We’re struggling with sileage. Much of the autumn harvest hasn’t been completed. We’d normally be into the third cut sileage by now. The stuff left is going to be rubbish, not good enough for bedding or fodder, nearly a waste product that costs more to move it. There’s an awful lot of money lost to this constant rainfall and flooding and if it doesn’t improve fast a lot of people will got out of business.”

The crisis comes when recruitment for specialist agricultural courses at Myerscough College is at a record level.

But Anya Westlund, assistant head of agricultural and countryside higher education, says students from farming backgrounds report hard times back home. Some aren’t looking to farm family land when they finish studies but find richer pickings abroad. Anya adds: “These things go in cycles. One can only hope this one ends soon.

“But it’s too late to save some farmers.”