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Farmers, small businesses and the full cost of the wettest winter

Even if the farmhouse stays dry, the crops are underwater. Steve Parsons/PA

With towns in the south and southwest flooded out, the government has offered £5,000 payments to help homeowners add flood protection to their homes, while small firms will enjoy a cut of a £10m fund to help them back into business.

Farms are small businesses, but this – as farmers have said at the NFU conference – is a drop in the ocean. There is no “standard” business model for a farm and, as with other businesses, the impact of flooding will vary depending on damage to for example stock (in this case, crops) and premises (in this case, land). Damage to stored crops, fodder stocks, buildings, and equipment will be among the other variables. The characteristics of the flooding itself are also important: how long is land flooded for? How long before it stops being waterlogged after flooding?

Many farm businesses are specialised and unique. The Somerset Levels, for example, is for the most part low-intensity grazing land for beef cattle rearing, dairy farming, and to some extent sheep farming. But there are also unique businesses supplying willow for such esoteric items as balloon baskets and coffins for green burials, or teasels for the treatment of the green baize on billiard tables.

These niche businesses can be the only firms offering certain products, supply chain links so vital that they are often tied in strongly to contracts. This means that if they can’t supply what’s needed, on time, they have to go to great lengths and cost to find substitute supplies, or breach their contracts. The summer floods in 2007 cost between £30,000-£90,000 per farm, losses that partly arose from just this failure to fulfil contracts.

The spring 2012 floods in Somerset affected more than 5,000 hectares, with water standing to a depth of 2.5m in places. The pumping stations were unable to remove all this water fast enough into the tidal River Tone, and early indications from the floods that began in late 2013 suggest a similar picture of around 700 farmers affected over an area of up to 12,000 hectares, with water standing up to 2.4m deep in places.

But eventually the waters recede, and once they have the farmers will count the cost of flooding. These costs include the emergency evacuation of livestock, the loss of spring grazing lands, and loss of later pasture land which will mean less or no silage or hay fodder for the following winter, the extra cost of buying in feedstuffs to replace flood-damaged stores or flooded grazing lands, and damage to field drains, fences, gates, and other equipment. Health problems for livestock, especially liver fluke in sheep, are also a concern.

The costs of cleaning up open land can easily be £15/hectare, but this is dwarfed by the overall loss to farmers of up to £1,400/hectare once the loss of cattle sales, contracting income, the costs of reseeding damaged pasture and so on are all taken into account. Few if any of these costs will have been covered by insurance in most cases, nor are there any other public funds on which farmers can draw. The farming community has however rallied round, with relief supplies of fodder being dispatched to the west country from other parts of the country.

Some of the “costs” are not so obvious. For example, an increase of mastitis in dairy cows or lameness in livestock due to the wet conditions all cost the farmer more. And, anecdotally, these figures may understate the long-term impact, especially in those areas where soil has been contaminated or requires substantial remediation. Some farmers for example had to apply large quantities of lime to rebalance the pH level of soils after the 2012 floods.

These last months of flooding this year suggest that, even with increased dredging, flooding will be a continually recurring phenomenon in the Somerset Levels and Moors. The land around the River Parrett lies barely 4.6m above mean sea level, those around the nearby River Tone are at their lowest 7.4m, and yet peak tides hit a high of 8m above sea level – there is nowhere else for the water to go at high tide but onto the land.

So it is inevitable that flooding will occur from time to time. Work on the Somerset Levels Water Level Management Plan goes back to 2003, and this reflects one of the problems. Water Level Management Plans look to timescales of 100 years or more. They allow for farmland to be flooded in order to protect more valuable interests and property. But while others benefit because farmland is sacrificed in this way, there is little or no balancing provision for the costs which farmers must therefore inevitably bear.

A proper strategic view is needed, supported by properly focused, long-term measures which recognise the hydrological reality of areas like the Levels, and truly reflect all the costs and benefits associated with sacrificing farmland to the waters. Who will pay, and how, for the floodwaters and all that comes with them that are imposed on farmers and farms such as those in Somerset?

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