The year 1976 was a notable one. Steve Jobs launched Apple, the first Star Wars came out and I turned one during harvest that August.
You hear a lot of people talking about 1976, especially these days, and it has has entered farming folklore as the hottest, driest year ever. ‘Yes it has been dry, but I remember 1976,’ they say.
It is true, 1976 was exceptional. So far from the norm it has become the benchmark for every farmer who struggled through it, and probably their children too. It is one of those beacon years like 1953 and 1982 which define the limit of what farmers ever expect to deal with.
Except they are now misguiding lights.
Any farmer who has had fields underwater and crops dying in parched dust in the last six months must realise something is up. The Beast from the East, followed by drought, followed by Fishlake and Wainfleet. Cereals 2019 as muddy as Glastonbury – although with fewer Hunter welly wearers.
The top 10 hottest years in the UK all start 20 something. 2019 was hotter than 1976. So were 2018, 2014, 2011, 2007 and 2006. The summer of 1976 was dry too, but 2018 and 2017 were drier.
Yet 1976 seemed worse because it stood out. Now we have a new normal. We are frogs being boiled in a pot, slowly enough that we don’t jump out. This May was the sunniest and driest month ever recorded.
The rains have washed flaming April into June showers. There’s a new pattern. Our springs now get 15 per cent less rainfall than before 1990. In October to February we get 20 per cent more. Crucial August is wetter than ever. Meanwhile, fewer and lighter frosts harbour new pests and diseases.
It is obvious. Whether we like it or not, the climate has changed. There is no easy fix and it is getting worse. My farm is already two metres below sea level, so you can understand my raw nerves. But I get why lots of farmers get annoyed by preachers about climate change and net zero too.
There is the sneaking suspicion of more red tape and higher costs. A whole new set of reasons people can tell you you are doing it all wrong. More inspectors nit-picking 30cm of hedge here and tiny fractions of an acre of field margin there. Crucial actives being stripped from our toolbox, making farming harder.
Yet while the costs of this new climate are clear on every farm this year, it is also an opportunity. Farmers can help solve these problems. We can grow climate-friendly food with fewer inputs and suck up greenhouse gases too.
We can be paid more for our climate services; new markets and new opportunities are there for the taking.
In 1976, that Star Wars film was titled ‘A New Hope’.