HIS cauliflowers are three months early, his spring onions four months ahead and his cabbages are going to seed.

Iain Tolhurst has been running Tolhurst organics in South Oxfordshire for 40 years but he has never seen a winter like this.

Last month was the warmest December in UK history, and the wettest calendar month since records began in 1910.

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It was confusing enough for children who were hoping for a white Christmas; For farmers like Mr Tolhurst the situation is near chaos.

“It’s had an effect on cauliflowers, winter cabbages, sprouting broccoli – Things which would normally stay in the field and not be harvested until May or April we’re harvesting now.

“These are breeds which are programmed to start to produce a crop in March and they’ve been doing that since I started in farming in 1976.

“You can get crops two weeks ahead but this is unprecedented.”

Almost all plants and animals rely on cues in temperature change to tell them when to go dormant or hibernate: it is an adaptation which stops them from wasting resources trying to survive in the coldest and most hostile months of the year.

If it doesn’t get cold, plants don’t “know” that winter is here, and won’t go dormant.

As Mr Tolhurst puts it: “Plants have been fooled into thinking spring is about to emerge – it’s the same with wildflowers like primroses and daffodils.

“Normally at this type of year you’d expect there to be a frost overnight more often than not: so far this year, we’ve had two.”

The pioneering organic farmer and environmentalist is making the best of a bad situation by cheekily marketing his early blooming cauliflower as “climate change cauli”.

The Oxford Times:

Daffodils in University Parks in Oxford

Oxfordshire farming co-operative Cultivate are selling the unique veg to help him get rid of a glut he could never have predicted at this time of year.

But the long-term picture is less rosy: “We are going to be very short of produce by the end of February this year.

“The cabbages which we usually crop from December through to March reached maturity six weeks ahead of schedule: the ones that are left have started to go to seed.

“In a few weeks we’ll have to stop harvesting because they’ll be inedible – I know cauliflower growers who have had to dump thousands.”

Nationally, he says this will inevitably lead to food shortages across the country.

“There will be a shortage of some crops. I’ve been talking to one wholesaler who’s already acknowledged they’ll have to import from overseas.

“You will definitely see a change in local produce and a far greater influx of imported produce, and it will almost inevitably lead to a price hike.”

Climate scientists think December was probably a freak rather than a picture of things to come, largely caused by storms propelled by the Atlantic jet stream, and not likely to be a permanent feature.

But farmers need to be able to predict the weather in order to know what vegetables to plant.

Mr Tolhurst says: “We’ve already planned this year’s crops and we don’t know if this winter was a one-off or not.

“It’s a limited financial concern for us, the greater concern is whether our climate has suddenly changed – is this the start of something bigger?”

  • Temperatures in Oxfordshire are finally set to plummet to freezing this week with lows of 0 degrees overnight on Tuesday and Thursday. No rain is predicted but with wind chill it could feel as cold as minus two or three.

Food retailers prepare for big decline

FOOD shortages will hit some of Oxfordshire’s biggest catering companies, suppliers and retailers, Oxfordshire Chamber of Commerce has warned.
President Peter Smith said he feared price hikes but said he hoped county organisations would work together to limit damage to the industry.
He told the Oxford Mail: “The mild weather in December is predicted to lead to earlier harvesting and subsequent food shortages. 
“As this may lead to higher prices due to increased imports, this will affect many large organisations as well as catering companies.  
“We hope that suppliers and customers will work together to mitigate the impact until the situation has improved.”

UNSEASONAL FRUIT

  • Ruined crops: gourds, squashes and some brassicas like cabbage have either been killed off or will be inedible this year
  • Ahead of schedule: cauliflower, spring onions, broccoli, strawberries and asparagus are all likely to be on sale months earlier than usual
  • Early birds: wildlife has also been affected – mammals like hedgehogs, insects like bees and birds of all sorts have not hibernated, and flowers like daffodils are blooming at completely the wrong time of year.

CULTIVATING A WAY TO BEAT WEATHER

THE bigger they come, the harder they fall: some of the worst hit by this winter’s record-breaking warmth might be some of the biggest players in the game.
For years the biggest corporate farms in the industry have been moving towards monoculture: farming the largest possible area with a single crop, and reaping huge economies of scale.
But that also means if you have a bad winter for your one crop, you have a bad winter for your whole business.

The Oxford Times:

Operations manager Jack Lawson from the farming co-operative Cultivate at The Earth Trust in Little Wittenham with some of their vegetable crops

In the past decade, a new type of farmer has emerged – independent smallholders who try to farm small batches of many different crops.
One example is Oxfordshire farming co-operative Cultivate, which manages a small plot of land at Little Wittenham near Didcot.
Like all farms, they have hit been by the unprecedented warm and wet winter and their yields are down significantly.
But because they grow so many different crops, the business can be propped up by those crops that have survived.
Operations manager Jack Lawson explains: “Yields are down quite significantly, it was a very wet year and that hampered a lot of growth.
“But half of what we grow is in polytunnels, so we can regulate that more closely: those plants are safe.”
The plants that were hit are the unprotected winter vegetables growing outdoors: cabbages, kale, fennel and parsley.
Like much of Oxfordshire, the soil at Little Wittenham is quite damp anyway, so a lot of extra rain is unlikely to be helpful.
“A lot of farmers in Oxfordshire grow squash in autumn, and if they get wet they just rot in the ground,” says Mr Lawson, 26.
“A couple of farmers I know had maybe half the quantity they were expecting because of that.
“Overall, I’d say the weather in December has been bad news: unpredictability is not a good thing in farming, you need to have a very good idea of what plants you should put in the ground.
“Our friend Iain Tolhurst is selling his cauliflowers to us three months earlier than usual, which is fine for us: if he was selling them to a supermarket it’s more than likely they would already have an overseas supplier lined up for this time of year and they wouldn’t buy them.
“The flexibility we have as a small grower means if one crop doesn’t do so well we can rely on the others.”
Cultivate are not the only ones doing well after the warmest December on record: West Oxfordshire dairy farmer Tim Hook’s cows have been snug all winter and are now milking “very well” he says.
“Because it wasn’t cold we didn’t use energy up keeping them warm, either.”
But the other side of a very mild winter, he said, is there have been frosts to kill of farmyard pests like aphids, mildew or even viruses.
Buy a locally-grown cabbage right now and you might find a very healthy-looking family of slugs living inside.
Like all other farmers, Tim Hook doesn’t want to count his chickens before they hatch: “We’re only halfway through the winter: February could still be an iron month, and that would change everything again.”

'I'M BERRY KEEN TO BEAT FREEZE'

STRAWBERRIES – hallmark of the British summer, Wimbledon and picnics.
But this year we might all be eating them a lot earlier.
At Millets Farm in Frilford near Abingdon, Julian Korkinski’s strawberries have already got tiny flower spikes peeking out.
If the warm weather continues for another three weeks they will be flowering months earlier than normal – another product of the UK’s warmest ever December.

The Oxford Times:

Julian Korkinski

And that’s fine, so long as winter doesn’t suddenly arrive.
If there is a sudden cold snap, which would not be unusual for late January or early February, a couple of frosts could kill off every single flower.
“Strawberries are 70 per cent of my business,” said Mr Korkinski, pictured. “I can’t see them freeze now.”

BEES BAFFLED BY THE BALMY CONDITIONS

GEORGE Fenemore’s bees are very confused.
Mr Fenemore, who rears sheep at Home Farm near Deddington, also keeps 100 hives of bees to sell their honey.
But he and his bees have never seen a winter like this before.

The Oxford Times:

George Fenemore with one of his sheep

He explains: “Normally when the temperature starts to drop we close up the hives and the bees go into a semi-torpor state.
“This year we had bees flying on Christmas Day, but there’s no nectar or pollen for them which means they’re using up their reserves at a vast rate.”
Normally his queens would also be hibernating all winter long then wake up in spring and start to produce their offspring.
This year his queens are already producing their brood in January, which means even more mouths to feed.

The Oxford Times:

In order to stop his bees from starving, Mr Fenemore has had to keep them fed with a homemade sugar syrup all winter, which he makes by melting granulated sugar.
It is a small extra cost on a large farm, but he says it is another worry on a long list.
The flip-side of all this confusion is that normally a beekeeper would fully expect some of his colonies to freeze to death over the winter.
That, at least, will not be a worry at Home Farm this year.