When the crops dry up

They may not be an obvious subject for the nation's sympathy, but spare a thought for Britain's barley barons as you spark up the barbeque this weekend.

While we all enjoy the warm, dry weather, farmers like Kevin Atwood, who manages some 4,000 acres on the North Downs near Sittingbourne in Kent, are facing one of the worst harvests in living memory.

The latest Met Office figures show that while spring rainfall was above average over much of Scotland, southern, central and eastern England have been exceptionally dry, with less than 10% of normal rainfall recorded.

That dry start to the growing season - the driest March and April for a hundred years in East Anglia - means this year's winter wheat produced fewer tillers, or grain bearing shoots, than usual.

It has already cut potential yields on Kevin Atwood's farm by a tenth, and if it does not rain in the next few days, he says, that could rise to a third as individual plants look to conserve water at the expense of seed production.

"We're heading into uncharted territory. It's been so dry for so long that we could easily see a 30% yield loss by the time we come to harvest, and that is assuming we do get some rain."

Kevin Atwood's problems are compounded by the fact that he's selling into a global commodity market. In days gone by farmers were insulated by the fact that a poor harvest meant prices would rise. But if central Europe, Asia or north America enjoy a bumper crop this year the global price of wheat could actually fall.

That would leave UK farmers substantially out of pocket.