Expect the unexpected
This season’s growing conditions have been kinder to some crops than others, but continuing uncertainty over Brexit and the trading environment makes it hard to plan for the future, reports Spence Gunn
It’s hard to know which is the more unpredictable at present – the weather that governs so many aspects of vegetable production or the political and financial climate under which the industry works to turn yield and quality into profit.
It will come as no surprise to some that the usual norms of supply and demand still don’t seem to be working for vegetable growers. Demand for many lines is on the rise which ought to see growers earning more overall. But although some crops have been in short supply after last year’s combination of freezing spring and baking summer weather – and are predicted to be so again following heavy rain in Lincolnshire and the north west – continuing intense competition between major retailers means prices being offered for next year are unchanged, and in some cases have been reduced.
On top of that growers of labour-intensive crops such as brassicas face the imminent uncertainty of finding enough labour to harvest crops in the run-up to Christmas thanks to the continuing lack of clarity about Brexit.
Brassica production has been most affected by weather conditions this year, with torrential rain falling on Lincolnshire at the end of June. Some fields received a month’s worth in a single day and some growers recorded the equivalent of three months’ rain in a week.
“The flooding had two effects,” says Brassica Growers Association chairman David Simmons. “Worst affected were crops in the ground scheduled for harvest in August and the damage included some outright losses. The wet soil also meant a two-week planting delay affecting broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.
“While growers in Cornwall and Scotland were not so badly affected, the situation was exacerbated by hot weather across Europe which also caused crop losses, so there was little available to buy-in to make up supplies in August, and what was available was very expensive.”
While the immediate supply situation for broccoli and cauliflower had eased by the end of August, as following plantings became ready to harvest, Mr Simmons says there will be knock-on impacts that will last into next year for Brussels sprouts and red and white cabbage.
“It’s looking like there were losses of up to 25% of the plants that were in the ground at the time,” he says. “For sprouts, the final harvest will depend on whether growing conditions in September and October are favourable and the plants make expected or greater height. But even if conditions are good, I think there will be a 10 to 20% shortage. Cabbage is likely to be in short supply going into next spring and could even run out.”
Most of the UK experienced a wet June but because Lincolnshire suffered the worst, other crops in other parts of the country have fared better.
Peas and onions
The season for peas is reported to have been generally in line with expectations and, overall, an improvement over last year, with some very good crops although those in the rain-affected areas of Lincolnshire were hit by flooding.
Root crops and onions got off to a good start and, with most on lighter soils, escaped damage from rain bursts.
Tim Elcombe, chairman of grower association British Onions, says imports were at high levels from May to July because of the shortage of home production in store as a result of last season.
“Growing conditions this year were much kinder,” he adds. “Most growers drilled and planted to normal schedules though we were worrying early on whether we’d have enough water. As it turned out we’ve mostly had good rainfall through the season. Some crops were affected by the heavy rain in June but certainly not as badly as brassicas in Lincolnshire and I’ve not heard of any write-offs. There was some hail damage but not too bad.”
Yields of early crops were above average while maincrops, which were ready for lifting around August bank holiday, were looking promising, though probably yielding closer to their average than the earlies. “Quality will be the name of the game – and there looks to be potential for good quality,” he says. “The wet and warm conditions might mean a risk of fusarium but until we get the crop in store we won’t know to what extent.”
The picture looks more mixed for potato growers. The season started well and some of the earliest crops were lifted by the end of the first week of June. The rain falling later that month was welcomed where growers had begun using irrigation but crops in Lincolnshire and some elsewhere were flooded, and wet soils hindered field operations in other areas. A further spell of wet weather in August delayed lifting, especially in the north-west.
“By early September some growers in the south and east were reporting what looked like being record crops and were even renting extra storage,” says NFU Potato Forum chairman Alex Godfrey. “But you didn’t have to go much further west or north for crops to be a bit disappointing. It looks as if growers are either getting the size or the numbers of tubers but few have both.
“There are also reports of some seed quality issues and there’s little doubt that is a result of last year’s growing conditions. Some varieties have been more affected than others.”
Vegetable growers knocked by last year’s drought had already started this season with less money in the business due to lower returns and higher costs. Margins on brassicas are among the lowest so no grower can afford too many bad years in a row and while some may have found higher prices for crops they were able to deliver in August, it would have done little to recoup the overall losses.
“For those in Lincolnshire who lost a month’s production at peak season, it will take some recovering from,” says Mr Simmons. “Already two big producers have decided to pack in brassicas after last year because they felt it was just not financially worthwhile and there is no one with the appetite to increase their area.”
That leaves no ‘margin for error’ in supply. Businesses can’t afford to grow more than the bare minimum to meet contracts, so there’s no ‘back-up’ UK supply when crops are hit by weather or pest and disease outbreaks
Despite that, there appears to be no movement in prices being offered for next year, reflecting the intense price competition between supermarkets, so some growers will continue planting just enough and hope for more favourable growing conditions to boost productivity. Little is left in the kitty for the investment growers need to improve productivity and reduce labour costs, which are likely to be up by 7-8% next year because of extra pension costs.
Labour availability remains a worry too. A clarification from the government in early September stated that, in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, EU nationals would still be able to come to the UK to work for a transition period ending in December 2020. But the continuing political uncertainties over Brexit’s timing and longer-term migration rules mean, for growers, recruitment remains difficult.
“Much of the attention has been on the fruit sector,” says British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward. “But although the fruit season is over, there’s a looming issue in labour-intensive vegetable crops, such as Brussels sprouts coming into peak season.”
Mr Simmons says that whatever the deal reached with the EU, or the policies decided on labour movement, the uncertainty will remain. “The UK is not an enticing prospect for Europeans even if they can legally come,” he says. “It’s essential we get a full roll-out of the seasonal workers’ scheme that was piloted this year. We had 30 Ukrainians under the pilot and were delighted with them.”
Field operations for onions are not as labour intensive as in some other crops, but labour will still be a challenge for the sector, says Mr Elcombe. “Some packing and processing businesses are automated, many are not,” he says. “The end of October Brexit date is a challenge for them because the product is in demand at the same time as they are competing for workers with retailers and online warehouses recruiting in the run-up to Christmas.”
Growers are also concerned that a restricted labour supply could hamper their ability to take advantage of prospects for new trade that Brexit might bring.
“We are still not sure what the import and export rules will be,” says Mr Elcombe. “But we are only 50-60% self-sufficient in onions and there is currently not much export trade. We need to turn Brexit into an opportunity so with the weakness of the pound there could be more opportunity to export, and to increase the proportion of the home market we supply.”
Mr Simmons agrees: “I’m sure there is more we can do both to increase the proportion of the home market we supply and possibly to export, depending on conditions post Brexit. Brassicas are a great UK product available year-round. But if we can’t harvest the crop, we can’t sell it. We do need labour and the margins to invest in raising production to meet what we know is increasing demand.”
UK field lettuce crops have had a much more positive season than last year, says Dieter Lloyd, spokesman for the British Leafy Salads Association. How supply from UK growers sourcing from their own or their partners’ operations overseas shapes up for the autumn and winter is impossible to predict. No deal means no customs arrangements and no one knows what that will mean for road transport from Murcia in Spain, where so much of the winter supply comes from, through France to the Channel ports, he says.
“Some have talked about shipping from northern Spain, such as Santander – but there will still have to be a border to cross there – and some have talked about Spain via Ireland which would be a long and tortuous route.
“Some have talked about sourcing alternative supplies from outside the EU, for instance North Africa or California. However, no one is growing crops that don’t already have a customer so there probably aren’t millions of Romaine heads out there waiting for a buyer. The complexities of the supply chain don’t seem to have been recognised.”
Lessons to be learned
Mr Ward points out that the issues growers have faced over the past two seasons hold lessons for the government’s plans for a food strategy. “We need sustainability in financial terms as well as environmentally,” he says. “The constant ratcheting-down of vegetable prices is in no one’s long-term interests. Realising the goal of being carbon neutral by 2040 will require a lot of investment and that will be difficult on current margins.
“We also need a change in customer attitude, to accept there will be seasonal effects on supplies of fresh produce and that sometimes it will be difficult to keep some lines on the shelves 24/7. A bad season is rarely bad for everything, so consumers need to be helped to just choose something else.
“Sometimes the cost of getting the crop harvested and supplied in certain weather conditions – including costs such as damage to the land – are just too great.”
Extremes to be the norm says latest climate change report
More unpredictable and extreme weather is likely to have an increasing impact on UK production of field vegetables, according to a report published earlier this year by the Climate Coalition and the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds University.
Priestley Centre research associate Kate Sambrook and director Piers Forster say the latest climate change projections expect a higher chance of milder, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers along with more frequent and intense extremes. Heatwaves will be hotter, longer and occur more often; by the 2030’s, average daily maximum summer temperatures could be up to 4°C warmer and by 2050 the kind of heatwave seen last year could be happening every two years.
Changes in rainfall will also be a risk and these will be greatest in eastern and southern England. Average winter rainfall is projected to increase by 20% by the 2030’s. The frequency of exceptionally wet spells is likely to increase with very wet winters such as 2015/16 becoming more common while average summer rainfall could reduce by 30% over the next 40 years.
In the report, Nicola Cannon of the Royal Agricultural University says where shortages in 2018 did lead to higher prices they still couldn’t compensate for the lost income caused by shortfalls in production, and if such extreme years persist there is a risk that a run of challenging years could prove too much for businesses to sustain.
In a case study on potatoes the report concludes that, under current climate projections, by the 2050’s the UK could have lost production on almost 75% of the area of land currently well-suited to the crop.
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