Sodden harvest brings confusion for shoppers

Shoppers were given conflicting messages today on the effect on UK food prices of the rain-laden summer.

A supermarket head said that costs could come down because of a good vegetable harvest. But UK farmers fear that the wheat and potato harvests may not be completed unless a spell of drier weather comes soon.

Mark Price, the managing director of Waitrose said today that a combination of a good summer vegetable harvest and a good global wheat harvest would see price reductions on some products and a levelling-off on others.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Price said: "Certainly, if you look at vegetables, the prices there are coming down.

"Wheat prices across the world are stabilising because, generally speaking, harvests across the world have been much better this year.

"It's still true to say that, in livestock, prices are going up, so in the UK what we are seeing is beef prices up by 25 per cent, lamb by as much as 50 per cent coming into Waitrose, but we are not passing that on to the consumer - we are absorbing those costs and our margin is reducing as a consequence.

"So as far as the consumer is concerned, what they are going to start seeing now is deflation in some areas, and already we are seeing it in vegetables.

"They are going to start seeing prices levelling off in the next 12 months as either the retailers are absorbing some of that cost or the food costs in the supply chain start coming down."

But the decrease in global wheat prices could be further bad news for UK farmers, who were yesterday granted a Government reprieve to save their crops.

Cereal crops are rotting in the fields, with summer deluges and a ban on using heavy equipment delaying the harvest.

A Government ban has prevented farmers from moving tractors and combine harvesters onto their waterlogged fields.

But following pressure from the farmers' union the NFU, Defra has granted a special dispensation for three weeks, exempting farmers from the ban.

Under the normal rules, they would jeopardise their single farm payments by taking heavy equipment onto sodden land because of potential damage to the soil.

Farmers said spiralling fuel prices had made this "the most expensive crop ever" and warned they were battling the worst harvest conditions seen in a lifetime.

And farmers' leaders warned a poor wheat crop could spark fears of another hike in food prices.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said the harvesting exemption would last until 4 October.

He said: "I am very aware of the problems that farmers are facing in many parts of the country in getting the harvest in after all the heavy rain there has been, and the prohibition on using machinery on waterlogged soil is likely to make the problem worse.

"We need to do all we can to help the harvest and I hope this decision will go some way to assist farmers who have been most affected."

He said farmers must limit their access to waterlogged areas to that required for harvesting, and should not begin other activities such as ploughing in preparation for sowing for next season, until the soil condition had improved.

"Farmers should record on their Soil Protection Review any damage arising from the temporary exemption from the waterlogged soil, the action they intend to take to negate or, if appropriate, lessen that damage; and should take such action as soon as is practicable before the next crop is sown. Remedial action is necessary to avoid creating problems for the future," he said.

NFU combinable crops board chairman Ian Backhouse said the move would help.

"No-one expects Defra to influence the weather," he said, "but we are encouraged the Secretary of State has responded to the appalling conditions faced by many of our members again this harvest.

"This action removes one barrier to gathering in the remaining crop and the threat of fines levelled on farmers for bringing home crops while soils are wet.

"It is the natural inclination of farmers to look after the soils that support their livelihoods and the NFU encourages its members to record the effects of harvesting in difficult conditions and what steps were taken later to rectify affected fields.

"Farmers do not want to leave crops out any longer than is absolutely necessary at this time of year when days are shortening, temperatures are falling, and soils are becoming wetter, and they will be encountering considerable extra costs through having to dry wet crops.

"Even feed grade cereal crops will now be suffering in terms of yield loss as germinating grain (sprouting) and grain shedding from standing crops becomes an issue across more and more of the country."

Frank Dakin, 47, who farms 1,700 acres of cereals and oilseed rape at Duddo Farm near Berwick upon Tweed, in Northumberland, said: "We are going to have very serious problems with our wheat and potatoes because it's going to be very difficult to get into the fields to lift them.

"We have had to put double wheels on our combines to stop them sinking into the ground and getting stuck, but we have fields where we will not be physically able to harvest.

"This is the worst harvest I have known in my 47 years and the consequences are very dramatic for the farming industry and the wider rural economy."

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