Growing crops in the driest parts of the country

John and George Bunting

John and George Bunting - Credit: Archant

In a new Essex Life column, Martin Betts from the Country Land & Business Association takes a look at current issues and stories from our rural communities

Essex is home to areas that are, on average, the sunniest, warmest and driest locations in the country. While this is a boon for tourists, the lack of rainfall is a problem for farmers in the region.

In some years, annual rainfall totals in Essex and south Suffolk have been recorded as falling below 450mm, especially around Colchester, Clacton and Ipswich. That’s less than the average annual rainfall in Jerusalem, Beirut and even some semi-arid parts of the world.

As a result, having control of your own water supply is the only way to guarantee that your crops will be able to survive the often challenging growing conditions. To achieve just that, John Bunting and his father George are in the process of constructing their own 20-acre reservoir on their land in Goldhanger, near Tiptree, in the south of Essex.

The family have been farming in their current location since 1944, across 450 acres, growing cereals as well as sweetcorn, squash and broccoli for the London markets.

Relying on a neighbouring farm’s reservoir for their water, they have a particular demand for it in order to finish their sweetcorn crop and ensure they have no quality issues come harvest. However, the space set aside for this crop has expanded over the last 20 years from around 30 acres to 180 acres, leaving them in no doubt that they needed a different solution.

A neighbouring farm and a nearby Site of Specific Scientific Interest, Gardners Farm, wanted to draw from the family’s proposed reservoir, and so they were able to build a solid agricultural and environmental case to secure planning permission from Essex County Council.

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This was gained at the second time of asking and it took two years to get a positive outcome. This is a point of contention for John and George, who are keen to point out they had the support of the local rural business community and that no objections were raised when their plans were discussed at parish council level.

The Country Land & Business Association (CLA) believes the current planning regime can often make it difficult for farmers like the Buntings to move from a need for a reservoir to construction. It very often serves as a brake on construction because permissions take too long and can be disproportionately costly.

‘If we are to have drier, hotter summers then it makes perfect sense that any system of water management is underpinned by a more sympathetic planning regime towards on-farm reservoirs, which can provide an ecosystem service to communities as well as a water management tool,’ says CLA director of policy and advice, Christopher Price. ‘Currently the cost and length of time to decide planning applications is a major disincentive for landowners to invest in these measures.’

In order to overcome an obdurate planning system, the Buntings had to go to the lengths of installing an extensive underground mains distribution system before gaining planning consent for the reservoir.

‘This was in order to prove that we were genuinely in need of irrigation and not just trying to circumvent minerals extraction rules,’ explains John.

Three years on from securing the go-ahead for the construction of the clay-lined reservoir, it is beginning to take shape across the 25-acre site. It’s been a long, hard road to this point, and it is likely to take another two years to complete, but the rewards for the Buntings and their neighbours will be obvious.

‘Having the reservoir means that we will have control over our water supply and won’t have to rely on our neighbours,’ explains George. ‘It will allow us to maintain cereal yields in a dry year as well as providing water for the vegetable crops on our drought-prone soils. Our neighbours will also have the confidence to know that they can get water to their strawberries too.’

John adds: ‘It gives us security, as well as another income, and helps us to secure the future of the business – giving us the option to strengthen it and expand if necessary.’

In an area where the weather can be inconsistent and extreme, the Buntings are now very close to obtaining a level of water security and stability that other farming businesses in Essex and across East Anglia would also dearly love to have.

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