Long-term drought contingency planning should become the norm both for individual grower businesses and for the sector as a whole, while more could be done to support a collaborative approach to storing and sharing water between farms, says NFU national water resources specialist Kelly Hewson-Fisher.
“We are still feeling the effects of last year’s drought, and two of the country’s key vegetable production regions are still in drought status,” she told the FPC Future conference in March.
“Last year we had no drought plan for our sector. Water companies look 25 years ahead to assess and manage demand and to predict resource availability, and they have drought plans to mitigate shortages.
“We should be taking the same approach with national, regional, catchment-level and business-level planning. We need to know what our needs will be 25 years ahead and take measures to help secure supply, storage and reduce consumption where possible.”
Ms Hewson-Fisher suggested all growers should consider a resource management plan for their farm. “Talk to the Environment Agency as they will tell you what their intentions are for the future in your catchment,” she said. “Try to work out your likely water need in future, and whether you’ll be able to secure it. Do you have the storage you need in order to take advantage of high river flows?”
She said reservoir building would benefit from a more collaborative approach. Sharing infrastructure between farm businesses would help water trading. “The challenges are grant funding and planning permissions – you need a lot to come together to be able to do these things to your timeframe.”
The water industry has established five regional resource groups which are drawing up plans for 2050 and beyond. The East Midlands group is predicting a need for an extra 444 million litres per day by then, of which agriculture could account for 60%, she said.
She said changes in licensing policy are already having an impact on growers in some areas. Even permanent licences are being converted into permits and liable to be revoked without compensation if the Environment Agency (EA) considers they pose a risk of environmental damage. “We have already seen the first round of revocations and growers have been told licences could be changed come 2028 without compensation,” she said.
She told The Vegetable Farmer the NFU was calling for two key policy changes to help growers.
“First, the EA should be giving notice to growers about any licence changes,” she said. “We need better engagement ahead of an expiry, giving the grower time to adapt. The process needs better alignment with the time it takes to get grant funding and planning permission for reservoirs, for example.
“Second, there needs to be a proper risk assessment as part of any decision to make licence changes, so the authorities and everyone else can understand that. For example, if all the licences in a catchment are cut by 50%, or the number of licences is halved, there will be a corresponding impact on food production.”
The second round of the Water Management Grant, which opened in April, offers sums of between £35,000 and £500,000 to help farmers in England with constructing a reservoir, investing in new irrigation equipment (excluding rainguns), or equipment to monitor soil moisture levels and schedule irrigation. The grants can cover up to a maximum rate of 40% of the eligible costs of a project. The government said the funding supported its commitment to, at a minimum, maintain the current level of food produced domestically. It is also preparing to launch a call for evidence on the planning barriers to ‘small’ reservoirs with a view to helping land managers with water supply.