Farmers united to beat the drought

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With this summer's drought threatening Britain's fruit and vegetable crops, farmers on the Isle of Wight are congratulating themselves on their innovative irrigation measures that may save the island's produce.

After last year's water shortages, several farmers formed a collective with the aim of sharing water and digging winter storage reservoirs to collect water during the wetter months. It took a court case against the National Rivers Authority and a great deal of work digging reservoirs, but this summer the farmers are facing the weather with a little more confidence.

Penny Smyth, environmental policy adviser to the National Farmers' Union confirmed the threat of drought was"serious". "It's certainly worse than last year," she said. "At least last year there had been fairly heavy rainfall throughout the winter so there was more water in the ground." The areas most likely to be affected were East Anglia, the South, Yorkshire and Severn Trent.

Supermarkets have also been expressing concern about the impact of a water shortage on the food industry. "If we don't get a substantial amount of rain soon, then we must prepare for a very low crop yield this year," said Colin Kitchen, a technologist for Tesco. Some fields were so dry that crops had yet to germinate and in Lincolnshire low-lying land had not recovered from last year's drought.

A spokeswoman for Sainsbury's said: "If the dry spell continues we are looking at a very difficult summer with regard to quality vegetable availability."

The Environment Agency said the outlook for agricultural water supplies was "uncertain", with the possibility of restrictions in many areas. The agency is warning farmers to look ahead.

The Isle of Wight collective, however, is already benefiting from foresight. "It seemed obvious to us that the total resource of an area should be available to the total population," said Colin Boswell, of Mersley Farm, Newchurch. "The regulations of the National Rivers Authority were preventing us from doing that. If I had too much water and my neighbour didn't have enough, then under the law I couldn't give any to him because I could only use the amount the NRA licence allows." The matter was eventually settled in court, with the NRA agreeing to allow the farmers to use their water more efficiently.

Like other farms around the country, particularly in East Anglia, the Isle of Wight collective also began building reservoirs across the island to trap winter rainfall. Mr Boswell, who farms 1,000 acres of sweetcorn and 30 acres of garlic for a supermarket chain, said: "The water is now available to us this summer and we can use it without any restrictions being applicable. Before, the water was just going out to the sea."

The Environmental Agency has called for stronger powers to force water companies to build new reservoirs and pipelines to ensure enough water. The call follows a series of crisis measures and investments worth millions of pounds by companies in an attempt to avert last year's shortages.