Act: Inspiration

A Lack of Water: How Food Producers Survive

February 5, 2019

When you think of drought, what do you imagine? Parched earth with cracks in the soil, dry, yellowing and wilting crops? In most cases, farmers and growers are completely dependent on the natural weather systems to provide enough water for their crops to grow and their livestock to have enough to eat and drink. So, when rain doesn’t fall for weeks at a time, only the most resilient farmers are able to continue to produce food, if groundwater and irrigation aren’t available. Most farmers have adapted to all but the very worst dry weather, sometimes using winter fill reservoirs and sprinkler systems. Boom irrigators and ‘imported’ drip irrigation techniques have turned land that would previously have been too dry to farm into oases of life. Here is a look at how drought has affected agriculture around the world and how farmers and growers have adapted to a lack of water.

United Kingdom

The UK is saturated with water – or at least that’s the typical image of British weather. But even the wettest places in the UK have suffered from the 2018 drought. Vegetable growers’ winter fill reservoirs were mostly empty by the end of July, instead of lasting until the autumn. Due to climate change, dry weather is becoming increasingly normal, so how do growers build resilience?

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

In the west of England rain is more than ample and some areas are too wet to grow anything but grass for cows and sheep. There’s a delicate balance in the winter between turning livestock out to graze and keeping them in so that the ground isn’t poached up. On the Somerset levels, there is a system of ditches that the surrounding land drains into, which keeps grassland dry enough for livestock to stay out 9-12 months of the year. In drier conditions though, for the most part, livestock farmers are able to continue to give their animals enough water – mains-fed troughs are regularly built into field boundaries – but when the grass doesn’t grow, what can livestock eat? What will arable farmers and horticulturalists do to become more resilient?

In July 2018, Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association, wrote that her farm in Wiltshire was considering planting turnips and kale for outwintering cattle, rather than planting cereals, and were expecting to feed some straw to livestock. She also commented on the difference between grass leys, with some varieties continuing slow growth despite the weather. Helen admitted that she hopes drought situations like this summer will be “the wake-up call that’s needed on climate change.”

In August 2018, AHDB interviewed livestock farmers from around the UK to hear how the drought has affected them and what their plans are for winter. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the pervading message is that mixed farming is a more resilient business model and that actively improving the soil structure in good years ensures survival in harsher conditions. Some of the livestock farmers were planning to wean earlier than normal, in September, to reduce the demands on the pasture; another extolled the virtues of autumn calving so that a lack of grass growth in the summer was less of an issue for production.

Alex Heffron, of Mountain Hall Farm in Pembrokeshire, Wales, rightly points out that there is a fine line between being prepared for the unexpected as well as maximising return from every acre. Farming in an area that normally does get quite a lot of rain means that farmers in Wales are able to keep more animals per acre than they would in other areas, and they rely upon multiple large cuts of silage to meet their winter needs. Alex comments that silage has already been shipped from Scotland to South Wales this autumn.

In other parts of the country, dairy farmers have sent whole herds of cows to slaughter because they don’t have enough feed to see them through the winter. Minette Batters, President of the NFU said, “This is probably the worst drought most people have known in their lifetimes.” We have already seen food prices rising and are likely to continue to see this, and help for farmers hasn’t extended much past the relaxation of greening measures.

South Africa

The climate in South Africa is markedly different between the Cape of Good Hope in the south and the Limpopo River on the border of Zimbabwe, some 800 miles north. Drought is a perpetual problem, especially in the Western Cape of South Africa around Cape Town. At the end of 2017, the South African government announced “Day zero”, the moment that Cape Town’s reservoirs would be so low that they would have to turn the taps off and send people to water collection points. Agriculture in South Africa uses nearly 79% of the total land area, and is dominated by fruit, wheat and maize production, but only 12% of South Africa is suitable for rain-fed crops, the rest uses mainly sprinkler-fed irrigation.

South Africa has no surplus water, so the only way for farmers to increase production and become more resilient to drought is to ensure that supplies are maintained properly and demand is reduced where possible. Since 63% of South Africa’s surface water extraction is used for agricultural irrigation, and half of that uses sprinklers, this is an obvious starting point for improvement. Research has shown that southern Africa has lost 25% of its soil fertility, which is causing drought and consequent flooding since the degraded soil is unable to hold water. Re-building the soil organic matter again will be essential to becoming resilient to drought for the future. The WWF issued advice in July describing the South African drought and how farmers could become more water resource efficient.

In South Africa, 2.2 million small-scale and subsistence farmers contribute about 5% to commercial food suppliesSome have claimed that these smallholders are much less adaptable to climate change than large-scale farmers and that the effects of lower yields have much larger consequences. While the latter is true, small-scale mixed farmers practicing agroecological methods, that nurture soil life and structure in a way that benefits crops, are challenging industrial farming and building resilience to drought.


California is a dry state, as is the entire Western United States. That’s one of the reasons that wine grapes, citrus fruit, olives and almonds grow well there. These crops do well in arid areas, but they still need water. A really frustrating consequence of droughts is the flooding that follows. While this often affects urban areas downstream more severely, the land management practices upstream can have an enormous positive impact. Some of these practices, such as planting deep rooting perennials and trees and using cover crops, are intuitive, as Colin Tudge has described, while others are more innovative.

In California, Don Cameron of Terranova ranch, grows almonds, olives and grapes and floods his fields from January to June to let the water slowly permeate through the soil to the aquifer below. This “recharges” the groundwater that is the farm’s main irrigation source allowing the crops to continue growing through the drier parts of the year and during drought. Don said his neighbours thought he was crazy to have standing water in his vineyard but that he didn’t see any negative impacts on his crops or yields. Don’s work on water recharge on Terranova ranch has spread and he is advocating for incentives for farmers who get involved in the project.


In August 2018, 61% of New South Wales was either in drought or intense drought and 39% was drought affected. As of the end of October, that had increased to 68.3% in drought or intense drought and 30% drought affected despite some areas on the North coast recovering. As reported in ‘The Land’, an organic farmer in Inverell, New South Wales, has found that 1% of humus at 30 cm soil depth will store 16 mm of rain, which can help pasture recover from a drought. “Synthetic fertilisers are not helping,” he says, “We’ve got to adopt a ‘do no harm to biology’ approach.” Further north, most of Queensland has been in drought for up to seven years. Most Australian farmers are prepared for drought but having eaten through any reserves they had put aside, they’re now wondering what is normal. Indeed, even the climate deniers in the country are starting to admit that climate change is happening and the farm lobby has criticised government for failing to implement effective drought policy.

The psychological stress of farming is well known by all those who grow and farm. Human resilience will continue to be essential to feed a growing population and human innovation will provide some relief. In their 2016 publication, Building Drought Resilience, Landcare Australia raised many important points. Perhaps one that would be overlooked by many, is the farmers’ mental resilience to carry on farming despite ongoing water troubles. In severe drought episodes, “it is important to have somewhere to switch off and not stress about the business,” and especially, “to have somewhere that has a bit of green”.

Our over-reliance on chemistry to improve soil productivity has had unintended consequences, we are now realising that by understanding and nurturing the soil’s biology we can build resilience. Another article by Landcare Australia describes a drought in 1982 that culminated in storms that caused soil erosion and flooding downstream due to a lack of ground cover and compacted soil. Contour ripping, direct-drilled crops and pastures and managed grazing helped to rebuild the soil and maintain ground cover. “When water roars off land in a flood, it is lost to everyone. Caught and stored in fertile soils and leaky weirs, it still moves down the landscape, but slowly, releasing its benefits over time”

Resilience Options

In a changing climate, farmers and growers will need to adapt to farming with less water. A range of options are available to them to adapt to this scenario, some that utilise sound understanding of natural processes and others providing more technological solutions. Storing water in winter fill reservoirs seems likely to become more common in those areas that will still get plenty of rain, though this is a 20th century solution. Changing to deeper rooted plant varieties (which has the added benefit of building better soil structure) will mean that crops are able to survive a little longer. Artificially raising the levels of aquifers in the winter, like Don Cameron does for his vines, is an effective way to improve the situation. Our food supply, as ever, is at the mercy of the weather. We should be prepared for worsening conditions, if we do not act now to encourage farmers and growers to become more resilient to drought.

Photograph: Jackoscage

Oliver Maskrey

Oliver grew up in rural Oxfordshire where the Young Farmers Club and working on an organic dairy farm developed his interest in agriculture and food production. He studied Zoology as an undergraduate and a Masters in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Exeter, and has since had a varied career working with Riverford and the SFT.

Tags: building resilient food and water systems, drought, drought mitigation strategies