COLUMN: Weather Wise with Gordon Currie

Harvesting came to an exceptionally early conclusion in 1976. (S)
Harvesting came to an exceptionally early conclusion in 1976. (S)

More musings from the Gazette’s weather expert.

The history of the harvest

As old as man’s creation

Is one of strength and toilsome tasks

Beyond imagination;

The whiff of warming stubble

The breath of scented air

Fulfilment of the season

You can scent it everywhere!

A partridge breaks the silence

Of this picture so serene,

Fresh clover smothers sun-baked tracks

Where combines once have been;

Though skies can cloud its destiny

And yields can leave us guessing

Each harvest bears a trusted faith –

God always gives his blessing!

This year’s cereal harvest has come into sharper recognition because of the National Farmers’ Union’s recent warning directing our attentions to the marked decline of self-sufficiency respecting our dependency upon home-grown production on the land.

In the practical background behind the scenes and in the fields of operations, the ultimate destiny of the harvest is perhaps the most critical issue of the operational farming year, which, of course is a law unto itself because of its close affinity with the weather.

Many critical factors are involved, not least the shortening days, the reluctant heavy morning dews which take longer to clear in lower evaporation rates and perhaps most of all, the seasonal risk of a sudden downturn towards autumnal weather, bringing preliminary bouts of wind and rain.

All these features lurk within the embodiment of the annual harvest gathering as indeed they have done since ancient times, long before grain drying facilities and all the modern technology of the 21st century.

Looking back, it is interesting to recollect the scenes behind one of our earliest harvests in a farming lifetime. The records of my 1976 diary picture the undulating landscape of soil upon the gravel around the Tanfield area, where the entire countryside presented a scene like fired brickwork.

Scorch-marks of deep russet lined the waysides for miles, while pastures over the hedges looked heat-worn and completely barren of eatage. By the final week of July 1976, more than 50 per cent of cereal crops had been harvested. As August progressed, with harvesting coming to an exceptionally early conclusion, memorable indeed was the phoney silence of the stubbles.

Motionless and powerless were the ploughs and implements for preparatory autumnal cultivations, being useless on the unyielding, concrete ground. Drought had gained mastery over the efforts of man! Amid all the anxieties of the 1976 drought, we were inclined to forget the old farming wisdom: “ dry year never beggars the master,” or alternatively, “A dry year never starves itself!”

It is interesting to discover the validity of these sayings when we delve into the harvest records of the mid-18th century, a period characterised by a long series of hot summers, most of which were accompanied by abundant harvests.

The year 1741 in particular was noted for filling the grain and fattening the bullocks to such a degree that farmers complained they were being ruined by over-abundance!

The final years of the 18th century brought a change in farming’s weather fortunes, with several wet, unprofitable harvests, the echoes of which could easily be compared with the atrocious seasons on the 1950s and 1960s.

Nevertheless, Georgian farming of the late 1700s had grown wise to the effects, good or bad, of the weather on different species of wheat, notably the wooly ear and velvet ear, or little wheat.

According to the observations of the famous agriculturalists, Culley and Bailey, these downy-chaffed wheats had shorter straw and were less liable to have the grain shaken out by the winds, simply because the chaff embraced the grain more closely, than in some of the smooth chaffed varieties.

However, they stated: “But we are apprehensive that this downiness makes them retain the dews and moisture upon the ear much longer than the smooth chaffed varieties, and probably renders them much more liable to be affected by those diseases which give a dark rusty shade to the chaff and a rusty cankering on the straw.”

The outcome of these early experiments proved it was more practical to grow the downy-chaffed wheats in windy, open situations and the smooth chaffed in sheltered situations.

Progressive farming has seen the harvests move forward, stretching the parameters of fortune and destiny in its gathering alongside the extremes of our August weather.

From the clouds of thistle down floating over the broken seas of destructed wheat fields in Richard Jefferie’s descriptions of 1879, and our local stooks of corn floating down the flooded rivers in September 1946, to the modern, precise geometry of today’s straw sculptured harvest fields, the measure of human endeavour has inevitably succeeded, sometimes against the most adverse conditions.

This, beyond all commercial factors, is why the words spoken by the National Farmers’ Union are a timely reminder of the working ethos behind farming’s oldest annual objective, the harvest.

PROSPECTS FOR THE WEEK AHEAD

The migration of a large high pressure system across England earlier in the current week, is likely to see it situated over Northern Europe by today, blocking off temporarily at least, the Atlantic Westerlies, with a flow of very warm, humid air from the Continent on southerly or south-easterly winds. This will lead to sluggish, thundery conditions over the weekend. However, strong developments of low pressure systems over the Northern Atlantic next week are likely to push towards the NW of Scotland, re-establishing, cooler, fresher weather in August’s final days.

Warm or very warm into the weekend, with sunny spells and some scattered showers or local thunderstorms. A gradual change to cooler, fresher conditions, lower humidity, accompanied by good sunny spells and scattered showers across the Vale of York with westerly winds next week.