Could it be that this year, for the first time since the second world war, some UK farms will not produce a harvest? Not even a grain? It may sound like hyperbole, but as an agronomist friend of mine told me recently: these are the worst growing conditions in living memory. The only thing being sown right now is panic.

The problem is the sheer amount of rain that has fallen recently. Farmers can’t plant seeds in rain. And on average, a crop – once drilled – can only be submerged in water for up to 21 days and still produce a viable harvest. After that the game is usually up.

One farm I know of has an average rainfall of 850mm. We’re now only a third of the year in and it has already had 650mm. Not far from where I live in Wiltshire there is an arable field that has been permanently underwater for four months. The only thing it is good for is ducks.

The problem is actually cumulative, with roots stretching back to last Autumn. Then rainfall was so high that some winter crops were lost altogether, with seeds rotting in sodden earth. Many cereal farmers, assuming that the worm would eventually turn, opted to sit it out and wait for the spring before planting. Except that the spring has been even wetter.

There are farms with sheds full of seed that will never go in the ground. As a rule of thumb, if spring barley or wheat isn’t drilled by the end of April, there is no point, in terms of yield, in doing so at all. I was told today about one farmer who still needs ten clear days to drill his fields. Anyone who has dodged showers recently will know the portents for him are not promising. The chances of uninterrupted fine weather between now and the end of the month are slimmer than Jeremy Clarkson getting planning permission for a new farm shop. Expect to see tractors going through the night, just to get crops established.

As ever, the picture varies nationally. Areas with heavy claggy clay soils are suffering most. Where I live, close to Salisbury Plain, the chalk is relatively free draining. But everywhere, soil seemingly dried by recent strong winds, flatters to deceive. The water table remains high and not far below the surface it turns to mud, which is lethal to crops.

Meteorology is not the only menace. Slugs thrive in the damp. And agriculture’s love-affair with increasingly heavy mega-tractors also means more soil compaction: a tragedy for regenerative farmers hoping to breathe life into exhausted soils. Many of them have planted hedges, cover crops and buffer strips – in the hope of reducing water run-off and soil erosion. But when this much rain falls, over such a protracted period, even the most environmentally-sensitive farm plan is tested to destruction.

If that all sounds abstract, do not be fooled. The real-world impact is coming. Wheat yields are predicted to fall by 15 per cent, winter barley by more than a fifth. These are the biggest drops since the 1980s and likely to result in domestic shortages. How chronic? It’s too early to tell.

There have been wet growing seasons before, not least 2019-20. But if this year’s harvest is as bad as predicted, contending as it is with the wettest 18 months on record and no fewer than 11 named storms, then we may be in uncharted territory.

The National Farmers’ Union says this season’s potential wipe-out is a reminder that food security has been taken for granted for too long. Certainly, the crisis – if that is what it becomes later this year – will strengthen the arguments of groups which have recently mounted protests against plans to pay farmers to take land out of food production. Newly-planted and heavily-subsidised trees may ultimately be good for the climate, but they do not fill bellies.

On Twitter, the farmer and author Jamie Blackett is a persistent critic of what he sees as the government’s mixed messages on food security. In his book Red Rag to a Bull Blackett describes our island nation’s particular vulnerability to food shocks, pointing out that a drone swarm strike against no more than two of our major ports would leave us three meals away from anarchy. He makes a persuasive case. But in reality, it may be that when it comes to keeping the supermarket shelves stocked this year, the only hostile power we have to worry about right now is the weather.

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