'I've never known it this bad in my whole career'

Sarah Morrison finds hope in short supply on a drought-hit farm near Peterborough
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The Independent Online

Cambridgeshire farmer Hugh Whittome has watched despairingly as his crops have failed, with only seven per cent of the usual rain falling so far this year.

He does not need to be told that huge swathes of the country are in drought.

"This is the driest spring I have seen since I began farming", said the 40-year-old fourth-generation farmer from Pondersbridge, near Peterborough. "We are now on par with the Sahara in terms of the rainfall we are getting here. Some days I wake up and look out of my window at the fields and I don't even want to see the rows of crops looking back at me.

"I put my heart and soul into this farm and try to make those crops grow as well as I can. When you see that it is all being taken away from you by no fault of your own, well, I would say it can break your heart."

Mr Whittome grows wheat, potatoes, sugar beet and peas on his 1,700-acre farm 80 miles from the edge of London. His produce goes into making Warburtons bread, Weetabix cereal and McCain crisps. This year, he could lose almost half of the yield his wheat usually produces, 25 per cent of his projected income from the crop, and up to £100,000 in the profits they bring home.

As chairman of the local water resources committee, he has just had to inform his neighbouring farmers that an irrigation restriction has been imposed in the area: they can now only pump stored-up water on to their wilting crops four nights a week, instead of daily. This means Mr Whittome will have to spend three times as long to make sure all his fields gets the liquid they so badly need.

"The next step would be a total ban on irrigation, which is likely if we don't get more rain, absolutely. Last year, we had a ban for 10 days, but I see it being much worse this time. "This is the earliest we have ever had to impose restrictions on farmers, but we are potentially talking about a devastating effect on crops. We could lose a very large amount of yield."

Mr Whittome said farmers were rationing water voluntarily long before it became compulsory to do so in the area. He said there had even been talks of setting up cooperatives whereby farmers shared use of water reservoirs to ensure smaller farms could cope with the loss of rain and sinking river levels. His neighbour, farmer Andrew Fletcher, 33, thinks it will not be long before the problems facing individual growers becomes a more widespread issue in the community. "If we can't irrigate our farms and no more rain comes later in the summer, we could lose up to 50 per cent of of our potato yield. This will have the effect of pushing the market price up. You'll see it, even in the local fish and chip shop, prices will go up."

For both farmers, less yield and less money means less investment in new technologies which could potentially offset the effect of future droughts on their crops. For Mr Whittome, increased costs of fertiliser, fuel for irrigators and cuts to government investments in agriculture, mean this dry spring could effect the future of his farm for years to come. "We have to buy our seeds and fertiliser for next year now, but we still don't know what our cash flow will be. There will be some farmers out there really sweating."