Leek growers have warned
that difficult growing conditions last autumn have lead to lower yields and
that shortages of the crop are likely to become more widespread as the
traditional winter period for consumption continues.
“Yields are certainly down,
and sizes are smaller than average, but retailers have increased prices so
demand has been less, which is a sensible thing to do,” says Tim Casey,
chairman of the British Leek Growers Association. “The UK can have a 12 month
supply of leeks, harvesting starts in June/July and we can still be harvesting
in May. I don’t think we will see a situation where there are no leeks to be
found anywhere, but there may be the odd day when some shelves are empty.”
He added that as well as
rising prices, supermarkets are stocking smaller leeks, with up to 6 in a 500g
pack which would typically only contain 2-3 leeks. Despite the poor outlook and
large crop losses in some areas, even crops which growers who thought their
crops would be un-harvestable have been able to salvage something, although due
to the reduced size picking and packing costs have increased.
Poor weather elsewhere in
Europe last year means than other countries which would normally be able to
export to the UK market, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and even Spain, are
also short of crop.
“The situation is not
tenable, margins are just so thin that there is nothing left to compensate in a
bad year like this,” added Tim. “There is not much more the supermarkets can do
on specification, they will have to look at prices.”
The latest forecast for
Total Farm Income (TFI) for the United Kingdom for 2018, produced by Defra,
shows a fall of £861 million (or 15 per cent) compared to the actual figure for
2017, while the industry’s contribution to the national economy falls 6 per
Despite a slight increase
in gross output, the release says that the output of key crops fell as a result
of the hot, dry summer and that the resulting increase in prices failed to
offset the overall fall in production. At the same time costs of inputs
including fuel, feed and fertiliser all rose over the same period.
As the figures are a
forecast, detailed information by sector, such as vegetables, horticultural
crops and potatoes, is not yet available. The final figures released for TFI in
2017 showed a real terms increase of 45 per cent.
Photo Credit: Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs
Plums are the latest British crop to be affected by this summer’s extreme weather.
Growers from the Vale of Evesham, which held the annual Pershore Plum Festival at the end of August, have warned that the season has been around a month shorter than normal as yields were hit by fewer blossoms and a large number of swollen and split fruits.
“We’ve had all the right weather, just not in the right order,” commented Gary Farmer from Vale Landscape Heritage Trust. “Instead of an ongoing crop of different varieties at different times of the summer, this weekend will see the plum season coming to an end a month early.
“Plums are a temperamental fruit, which might be one reason their popularity had dwindled. What’s more, weather conditions have fluctuated over the last few years, which means neither the trees, the pollinators nor the growers know how to adapt.”
As the UK enters a cooler period over the coming weekend, there are warnings that the situation for farmers is now becoming serious.
Rob Clayton of AHDB told the BBC’sWake up To Moneyprogramme: “This year growers have had the Beast from the East, then they’ve had it so hot and so dry this summer.” This means that reduced yields, coupled with a 3 per cent reduction in the planted area will reduce crop availability. “Our options are limited. It means prices are going to be a little bit higher right the way through until next spring,” he added.
According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Nielsen, shortages of vegetables have increased food price inflation to 1.6 per cent in July, compared to 1.2 per cent in May and June. The average price of a head of broccoli is around 25 per cent higher than this time last year, while carrots are 8.3 per cent more expensive in supermarkets. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC says that, “The hot, dry conditions we have seen … mean the pressure on prices will continue for some time to come.”
At the same time, Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association has called on retailers to work with growers during the continued dry weather. “There will certainly be less production and higher costs for growers and this will continue to affect winter crops as well as those planted in the spring,” he stressed. “At the moment it is too difficult to make predictions about where we will be in four month’s time. It is impossible to predict what will happen next year and Brexit adds more uncertainty for producers.”
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, told the broadcaster, “The situation on the ground is hugely challenging across all sectors. There could be serious concerns for many farmers if this extended spell of warmer, drier weather continues. This unprecedented spell of weather really should be a wake-up call for us all. It’s a timely reminder that we shouldn’t take food production for granted.”
As the hot dry weather continues, retailers and wholesalers are continuing to import fresh produce, including salad and brassica crops from across Europe to fill the gaps created by UK crops.
There are reports that even farms with irrigation are struggling as temperatures in excess of 30 deg. C are stopping plants from growing. The British Leafy Salads Association has said that yields are around a quarter of normal for the time of year, while demand is up 40 per cent.
Tony Clemence of Total Produce told The Guardian that the firm was currently importing 30% of its iceberg lettuce and 40% of its celery from Spain and Poland, while the same report said that the firm’s newsletter had warned there is ‘currently no alternative country of origin available” for Tenderstem broccoli and that supplies of fine beans, mange tout and sugar snap peas were low and their quality “intermittent”.
At the same time Spanish producers have warned that they cannot meet all the gaps created by the weather which is affecting much of Northern Europe. Ginés Navarro, of Murcian salad producer Agridemur, said, “Many of the companies we work with in the winter are demanding products from us, especially spinach in the United Kingdom.
“Like most other producers of leafy vegetables in Murcia, our productions are mostly scheduled based on contracts, both in winter and in summer. It is true that there are producers that grow for the free market in winter, but in summer, practically everything is intended for the domestic market and is already programmed. That is why there is little we can do.”
Lettuce growers in the UK and further afield have warned of shortages as the hot weather and lack of rain continue for the foreseeable future.
With this summer already being claimed as the hottest since 1976, wholesale prices for lettuce and some brassicas have spiked, while home-grown and imported fruit such as strawberries and melons are also attracting high prices.
“Cabbages and icebergs are suffering because they’re getting cooked in the field, prices are tremendously high. The price of lettuce has gone from £4.80 per box to £9.60,” Chris Hutchinson, owner of Arthur Hutchinson Ltd at New Spitalfields Market.
Spokesman for the British Leafy Salad Growers Association, Dieter Lloyd, said that record sales of 18 million heads of lettuce (a 40 per cent increase on the previous year) together with hot conditions which were preventing growth could lead to a shortage of the crop.
“While it is great news that leafy salad sales are up around 40 per cent across all retailers, that’s just half the story. The record temperatures have stopped the UK lettuce crop growing. When the mercury hits 30 degrees Celsius lettuces can’t grow,” he said. In all of the major growing areas, from Cupar in Fife, through Preston, Lancs, to Ely in East Anglia and Chichester, Sussex, the hot weather has affected all our growers and we may be seeing some gaps on retailers’ shelves in the next two weeks as the heat wave continues.”
According to reports, some wholesalers have expressed concern about the recent spate of hot, dry weather on the availability of certain UK produce lines, including broccoli and some soft fruit.
Following temperatures of 31oC in Lincolnshire and 25oC in Cornwall, former Secretts Direct boss Vernon Mascarenhas of New Covent Garden’s First Choice Produce told the Fresh Produce Journal that “Broccoli will be hardest hit because generally you don’t irrigate broccoli. In this heat the broccoli plant will dehydrate and shut down.”
He added, “Strawberries are also going to be a problem. In this weather strawberry plants can just shut down and stop producing. “Everyone loves the hot weather but people should realise what it can do to our food chain,” he said. “There are going to be consequences.”
Fruit grower and chairman of the NFU horticulture board has warned that the cold weather in April could lead to a shortage of British top fruit later this year. She told The Guardian that her own apple harvest could drop by 70-80% as a result of frost damage.
“There’s damage to both top and stone fruit, which includes apples, pears, plums and cherries,” she said. “But it’s difficult to know what this means until we see the fruit sets, which is the point when it becomes clear how much fruit has stayed on the trees. However, I think there is enough evidence there will be less English fruit this year.”
English wine makers have already said that the frosts have wiped out up to 50 per cent of the national grape harvest. ““We will need our retailers and customers to be less fussy this year if they want beautiful-tasting English apples,” added Ms Capper.
The NFU, UK Irrigation Association and others have warned that farming must receive its fair share of water if the country experiences a drought this summer.
According to reports, after one of the driest winters in 20 years, more than four-fifths of the country’s rivers have fallen to abnormally low levels and there are growing concerns about the potential impact of dry weather on farmers and growers.
NFU Vice President Guy Smith said, “The situation is patchy with farmers, particularly in the South and East, reporting as low as 10% of their expected March and April rainfall. While decent rains in May and June will put many crops back on track, some crops like spring barley have clearly already lost their full potential. Some farmers and growers are looking at the ‘changeable’ forecast for the end of this week hoping it brings much needed rain.
“We are growing increasingly concerned about the fruit and vegetable sector, but reservoirs are full and abstracted water sources are still available, albeit at lower than normal levels. Water transfer operations for irrigation in the Stour Marsh and Romney catchment area in Kent started six weeks earlier than usual, so we are expecting early demand for water from soft fruit growers.”
Melvyn Kay, Executive Secretary of the UKIA commented that some of the press coverage appeared alarmist, but added, “UKIA will be meeting with the Environment Agency, other members of the Water for Food Group next week to be briefed on the situation.”
According to reports from The Netherlands, Dutch greenhouse growers are struggling to find enough workers and companies to repair significant hail damage.
Storms on 24 June, some of which damaged top fruit in the south east of England, are reported to have destroyed 150 hectares of glass in the Noord-Brabant region and damaged another 50 hectares. In total the damage has been estimated at between €70 and €100 million.
Although insurance companies and financial institutions like Rabobank have been working to help growers, greenhouse construction and repair companies have said they cannot find enough staff to meet the demand for rapid repairs, with some growers worried they will not be back up and running in time for the next season.
Photo Caption: One of the hailstones which fell at the end of June