How has Britain’s cold snap affected UK agriculture?

29th May 2018

British weather has a tendency to be turbulent at the best of times, but how has the ‘Beast from the East’ affected the country’s crop growth and agriculture?

From a cold and windy start to 2018 leading into a generally chilly February - culminating in more snow and freezing temperatures when the ‘Beast from the East’ wreaked havoc nationwide in March – it would be fair to say that the UK, including our main potato growing areas, has experienced some fairly extreme weather over the last few months.

Despite the sudden mini heatwave in the third week of April, most of the month was much colder and wetter than we would usually expect to see. Early May seemed to signal that summer was suddenly upon us and we had one of the hottest early May Bank holidays on record but, in true British style, the glorious weather didn’t last for long.

It looks likely that erratic weather patterns are set continue throughout this year’s growing season, so how will this impact our potato growers and their crops?

Well, our Cornish growers usually plant their early new potatoes in January and February, and cover them with a protective layer until the plants emerge. This year more than ever they really have been at the mercy of the weather and have had to time planting the seed potatoes very carefully whenever the land has been dry enough - and not blanketed under a layer of snow!

Once the seed potatoes are tucked up in the ground and protected under polythene they can sit and wait for a while, but they won’t start growing properly until the ground warms up to around 10oC. As a result many of the early crops have either got off to a slow start, or did grow a little only to be thwarted by the cold snap.

Plants are quite resilient though: once the weather warms up sufficiently they will put on a growth spurt and make the most of whatever sunshine is available, but they are unlikely to catch up completely. Early potatoes won’t be as early as in better years - which we could normally expect in late May or early June - and there may not be quite so many of them, so this year more than ever you really do need to make the most of the Cornish new potato season as soon as it arrives.

Elsewhere in the country, maincrop potato growers have also been impacted by the weather. Colder wetter weather has meant that the soil in many fields has been too heavy and claggy to plant in so growers have had to focus on planting fields according to location and soil conditions. In some cases, this has delayed planting by several weeks. Normally, the majority of the potato maincrop is planted in the ground before the end of April, but this year many growers didn’t start planting until May and some will still be planting in June.

The plants will soon develop, but they’ll need to be ready to harvest before the weather cools down too much in the autumn, so will unfortunately have to make the most of a shorter growing period. Growers and agronomists will be watching the weather and monitoring the crops closely throughout the summer, hoping for better potato growing weather ahead.