Edwards: Will a weak pound and tariffs on imported stock be good for UK nursery production?

At the time of writing - a few days after the general election - sterling has weakened and we still have no idea of what Brexit means.

The future might well bring us a weak pound and tariffs on imported stock. Would that be good for UK nursery production?

Outsiders might think so, but I’m not so sure. It takes a long time to get plants to market. No one deciding today that the future looks bright will have additional production for sale any time soon. An increase in production takes investment. Which of us is confident enough in the future to make that investment right now?

If we do not see increased UK production and yet demand remains steady, then around 50% of UK consumption currently imported from Europe will increase in price. At best, if nurseries act against tradition and pass on that increase, this will mean significant inflation on plant prices.

I am tempted to say that the worst-case scenario would be that nurseries do not pass on that increase and find themselves in real financial danger. But I am afraid that there is one scenario worse still.

The optimistic outsider will tell us of great opportunities for importing cheaper stock from outside the EU. I hope politicians understand that, for plant health reasons, this must not be seen as an option.

I do believe that, in the long term, we will see UK production increase. But it will not happen overnight and it will not happen simply because European plants become more expensive. It will only happen when UK growers learn to provide the level of service that we have all come to expect from our European suppliers. That will not be easy.

European production is often concentrated in geographic areas densely populated with nurseries. Established European wholesalers with significant traffic to UK nurseries have an advantage over UK nurseries without that established supply.

But the greatest barrier to increased UK production is perhaps our inability to co-operate among ourselves.

The Dutch wholesale model, for example, has developed into one of many small growers, each specialising in the production of a narrow range of crops, without any sales and marketing overhead, feeding stock into a network of wholesalers who subsequently take on those functions of sales and marketing.

Looking ahead to the long term, the future for UK nursery stock production is good, but only when we learn to co-operate far better than we have done to date.

Tim Edwards is chairman of Boningale Nurseries

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