Dixon on ... Financial problems

Twelve months ago, Britain found that its banks had seriously flawed management.

Prudent caution of the boringly careful "Captain Mainwaring" ilk was thrown away. These sub-prime lenders imagined they could turn bad money into good.

On top of this disaster has come an energy crisis and food-price inflation. Recovery will take years and inflict serious pain on real businesses and real people.

Horticulture is being hit now by escalating energy and commodity prices. Not only diesel, but anything made from oil, costs more. This includes fertilisers, pesticides and packaging. Increasing costs have been blunted so far by goods bought forward in the early spring. The real crunch comes this winter.

Nurseries will find heating oil is much dearer, and similar rises in fertiliser costs will hit right across the industry. Even modestly sized field vegetable growers are facing fertiliser bills for 2009 running to millions of pounds.

Few, if any, horticultural businesses have working capital capable of carrying through a season without borrowing. Will banks that are now posting the biggest losses in their history run the risk of funding crop production? And if they do lend, will interest rates be affordable? And will growers find there are fertilisers to buy? Some fertiliser manufacturers in Europe have order books full until early 2009 - there is no spare factory capacity.

Horticulture is financially the most vulnerable and fragile of the land-based industries. There is no harvest in store to trade against future investment for next year. Additionally, pests, diseases and poor weather can easily destroy the prospects of any income just when 2009's harvesting begins. Perhaps the supermarkets, Defra and the Treasury should be asking: "What if growers or the banks don't take risks for 2009?"

- Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene International.


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