Wednesday, April 24, 2019

When harvest was (almost) too hot to handle

July 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Fen Tiger

Cherryade and pea crops drying on tripods and are just two of Fen Tiger’s memories from the long, hot summer of 1976.

am old enough to just about recall the humid days of 1976 and – if current weather patterns continue – future generations may look back at the summer of 2018 the same way. Yet it is often forgotten that summer 1976 started with snow in June.

I remember standing on a cricket field and watching the white stuff fall. From then onwards, though, it was hot. Very hot. By late June, we had seen 15 consecutive days of temperatures hovering around 90º – for in those days we measured things in Farenheit, not Celsius.

Even the umpires at Wimbledon that year were allowed to remove their jackets. Wildfires were frequent with fields so parched and dry. The great drought saw rivers and reservoirs all dried up and water restrictions were imposed across the country. Even a drought minister was appointed.

Then, it ended just as quickly as it started. The heavens opened on August bank holiday and the summer of 1976 was replaced by one of the wettest autumns on record.

Safety nightmare

My dad has always said that the 1976 harvest was started and finished in July. We grew peas that year – mostly for the fish and chip shop trade. We used the tripod system – for those who have no idea what I am talking about, I will explain.

The peas were cut and left in a swath and wooden tripods erected like the old fashioned Indian wigwams. Peas were then stacked, by hand, on to the tripods to dry. And once they were considered dry enough, they were fed into the front of the combine.

From what I can remember, today this would be a health and safety nightmare, The reel of the combine was removed and I recall an old wooden ladder being roped across the header to prevent unwanted entry. The peas were then fed into the combine manually and each tripod dismantled by hand.

What memories come flooding back. They are not of the back-breaking work or the combine standing still yet munching through a pea crop at full speed. Rather they are of the farm foreman arriving each morning with a crate of Corona fizzy pop – cherry flavour I think – which he had ordered from the local shop.

Early mornings

The conversation back then was never about safety regarding the wooden ladder across the front of the combine but woe betide anybody who forgot to return their empty Corona bottle and claim back the deposit– yes, these were glass bottles not plastic.

It was so hot that summer harvest started at 4am every day. Much like on some farms this summer. When midday came, we all went home until tea time and then came back for the evening shift.

With yields down, I cannot recall the price of wheat but remember father saying the price had jumped up but the yield was so low high prices did not compensate. I wonder if harvest this year is starting to go the same way?

Today, grain markets are rising on the back of rising temperatures and drought conditions. There are already concerns in Russia and northern Europe over yields, with Denmark reporting its driest season for over 50 years.

The only factor starting to limit grain prices is political. Trade tensions involving US trade measures against China and the European Union could have a big impact. Meanwhile, UK grain prices show a wide variation with the highest prices around the bioethanol plants in the north-east.

Quality prospects

Closer to home, we have already seen July ex-farm values pushed upwards of £150/t – reflecting shortages and hot dry weather. Many farms took a punt and sold for harvest. Perhaps now that price seems a little low – but it remains a good starting block for future sales.

With such a cold and wet spring, prospects for grain quality look less good. With a small root system and too much moisture in the spring, most local wheat crops on the lighter lands are now starting to show signs of water stress.

It is very rare – if not impossible – to have a year with high prices and high yields. Yields right now are a worry and quality is also a concern. Wheat crops which were three or four weeks behind are now two or three weeks ahead. Have they finished naturally or died early?

Bushel weights as ever are key. And with combines rolling early, many farmers will be unhappy – although others will be happy just to have a crop to harvest. As always, the weather will either line our pockets or not as the case may be.

At least today peas can be combined direct and not stacked on those wooden tripods – even if I do miss the Corona and those returnable glass bottles. Happy harvest!


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