Food costs warning as soggy August takes toll

HARD-PRESSED consumers face further food price rises as one of the wettest Augusts on record threatens to destroy Britain's 2008 harvest.

Farmers in the region were forecasting a bumper crop, but now experts say they could lose upwards of 10m as the wheat deteriorates in the washout.

They have a window of just days before hundreds of thousands of tonnes of high-quality wheat is destroyed and deemed only fit for cheaper animal feed.

If fortunes do not improve, British millers may have to import more grain from abroad, costing up to 20 a tonne more than home-grown stock. This would push up the cost of bread, which has already soared in the last year as a result of grain shortages, adding more financial strain for families coping with rising prices.

And last night there were warnings the problem could lead to a further lack of supply next year as farmers struggling for money plant fewer crops.

It is estimated that many farmers will this year lose about a fifth of their potential earnings.

By the end of last August, more than 50 per cent of Yorkshire's wheat crop would have been cut. This year, it is only around 20 per cent.

Farmer Keith Wells from Driffield said: "The situation is starting to get desperate. We started harvesting on July 27 and we've only been able to get the combine out six times since then.

"We desperately need sun. All our wheat is ready for harvesting.

"I could potentially lose up to 30 a tonne. If I have 1,000 tonnes, then I'm looking at a loss of 30,000. In the short term, it means we'll have to borrow money from banks. Long term, we may have to review what we are growing.".

The MP for Scarborough and Whitby, Robert Goodwill, himself a farmer, said Yorkshire's farming community would be under huge strain.

He said: "As farmers, we put in 12 months of investment and hard work. With the rain, you can see the crop over the gate but you just can't physically get to it and put it in the shed. A lot of farmers are depressed."

The director of crop marketing at the Home Grown Cereals Authority, Alastair Dickie, said the financial implications of a ruined harvest could be massive.

He said: "In this country, we produce about 4.4 million tonnes of milling wheat. Around 400,000 tonnes of that are produced in Yorkshire. If this crop turns into feed quality wheat, then the financial loss could be huge."

He also said farmers may not be able to plant future crops.

"Yorkshire farmers will have lower revenue and higher costs this year. Fertiliser costs are also going up so there may be less money available to spend on crops," he said.

Experts say this could lead to a shortage next year.

The problem is intensified by the effects of rising fuel prices. Ordinarily in the event of a wet August, farmers would harvest the moist wheat and dry it indoors.

Spiralling fuel bills, however, mean that drying is no longer cost effective.

The chief officer at Age Concern East Riding, Mark Rounding, said any food price rises would be particularly felt by pensioners.

He said: "The increasing cost of bread is a symptom of the price rises everyone is seeing in their grocery bills, but this rise is particularly concerning to many pensioners who already struggle to make ends meet."