Cucumber sales up but returns still too low

Promotion of British cucumbers has helped sales this year but this has not made up for the low returns still paid to growers, the Cucumber Growers Association (CGA) and Pepper Technology Group's Growers' Day heard on 12 October.

Conference: investment challenges facing cucumber producers have been exacerbated by low prices
Conference: investment challenges facing cucumber producers have been exacerbated by low prices

Over the past eight months, online food showcase Great British Chefs has worked with the CGA to promote wider use of British-grown produce, as it has with the Tomato Growers Association (HW, 14 October).

Its co-founder Ollie Lloyd told the conference: "You have the same challenges as the tomato guys. If you want to grow, you either need better prices or you need to inspire more people to buy them more often. Through what you are doing, not just with us, people are buying and eating them more regularly - Kantar data shows that consumption is up six per cent this year, plus a small improvement in penetration, so you are making gains and bringing people into the market."

But price remains a key issue. "You are eight per cent down on price and 3.2 per cent down on spend. There is an offset, but is it enough?" he asked.

Chairing the session, CGA technical officer Derek Hargreaves said: "As growers we may forget about who is buying them. With the help of Great British Chefs, we can stimulate people to do something other than put them in salads."

But he added: "Prices are as low as they can go. We need 28p a stick for continued development - any lower and growers will say it's not worth it. To invest in new glass or LEDs you have to have confidence and at the moment that isn't there. Ten per cent more sales is 10 per cent of nothing if you aren't making money. We need to stimulate people to go out and buy more so demand exceeds supply."

Explaining his work on the category, Lloyd said: "Eighty-three per cent of the population buys cucumbers so the challenge is to get them to use more of them, and to get them to buy British. For that we need emotive stories - that they are grown closer to the market and so are fresher and more succulent, but it's an ingredient that hasn't been brought to life as it might.

"We have created content explaining their versatility, then amplified that through various online channels. This will reach other professional cooks as well as consumers who are prepared to create more difficult and aspirational dishes than spaghetti bolognese."

Poor returns to growers currently hamper any transition to the potentially more productive high-wire system for cucumbers, said glasshouse consultant Ian Bedford. "The main barrier is low prices and the amount you'd have to invest."

He explained: "We are still novices here with the high-wire system. You need a 3.7-4m minimum, and glasshouses in the Lea Valley are generally not that high. In the Netherlands they have 5m to allow for screens. We need new glass to make it work, but some growers are deferring investment in new glass due to fears about prices and the limited success we have had so far." He added: "Spider mite has been a big problem for one grower - the biological side is paramount. With two crops a season rather than three it's run at maximum thresholds all the time, and you need more labour. But you can get yields of 260 or more cucumbers per square metre."

A quarter of the Netherlands' 600ha of cucumber production already employs the high-wire system and the figure is "growing slowly", Thanet Earth director Arjan de Gier told the conference. "It's not a magic thing to solve your problems. The risk is higher as it's an investment, and the impact of viruses can be much bigger."

He added: "It looks more and more like robotisation is coming, and that may work better with high-wire. Meanwhile, you may have an issue with labour after Brexit."

Meanwhile, Dutch grower and plant raiser Ron Peters, who runs his own testing facility, warned growers: "When you have a virus problem you will eventually go bankrupt. We have seen big Dutch growers go down the drain. You can't get money for a poor-quality crop."

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