Growers count the cost of successive harsh winters as levels of crop damage emerge

The severity of losses to production horticulture businesses in regions hardest hit by this winter's unprecedented low temperatures is becoming apparent as edible crops due for harvest emerge and ornamental stock damage is counted.

Thousands of hectares of vegetable crops in Lincolnshire have been destroyed with cauliflower crops the worst hit and purple sprouting broccoli also badly hit. Shortages of both and potentially some other vegetable types are expected to be experienced until as late as June.

Meanwhile, ornamentals growers in the worst hit regions are reporting losses of up to 10 per cent of their crops. York-based nursery stock wholesaler Johnsons of Whixley director Andrew Richardson said the "nightmare" of -18 degsC temperatures in early December hit outside beds, finished plants and propagation units. "Even 'bulletproof' laurels were nailed", he said.

Representatives of the edibles sector warned that some growers were now rethinking their future given the financial losses suffered.

Brassica Growers Association chairman Phillip Effingham told Grower that some 40 growers had been affected. Marshalls, for which he works, had 750 acres of crop at risk with 85 per cent of its cauliflower crop gone to waste.

"We've never had these hardier, later crops that we harvest from March to May affected by the cold like this before," he said. "Normally we would expect most of the varieties to be able to withstand -8 degsC."

He added: "The ramifications did not become clear until the crop started to move in late January/early February. There's a substantial cost to the grower - £800-£1,000 an acre - so it will cause severe financial damage, especially to the cauliflower growers. Many growers are therefore balancing up whether to continue growing cauliflowers or to turn to winter wheat."

Sarah Pettitt, chairman of the NFU board for horticulture and potatoes and a Lincolnshire-based brassica grower, said she would normally start harvesting purple sprouting broccoli from January into this month but will not start now until march - up to a three-month delay. "We have had to plough entire crops back into the land," she said.

Neil Booley, account manager at Lincolnshire-based Staples Vegetables, estimated that in the first week of March there will be 50-70 per cent availability of cauliflowers from UK growers falling to between 0-10 per cent in the last week of March, when buyers start to rely on Lincolnshire for supply.

He added: "How we cope will depend on our retailers. If retailer customers insist on putting it on the shelf no matter what, we will all go to the table and discuss what it will cost. But it's too late to import from Spain, Portugal or Italy."

Elsewhere, Hugh Baker of Sherwood Produce told the recent ADAS/Syngenta vegetable conference that the cold weather combined with rising input costs, attractive wheat prices and a lack of cash could prompt vegetable growers to stop growing some crops altogether (see p31).

ORNAMENTALS GROWERS MAKE PLANS TO COPE WITH EXTREME WEATHER

Johnsons of Whixley director Andrew Richardson said the firm now planned to spend £500,000 on new protected space after losing 10 per cent of retail stock in six weeks of freezing temperatures at the firm's York base.

Richardson added that plants such as Phormium and Cordyline had suffered, adding that growers could turn to more field-grown stock and older plants that are reliable "back to basics doers". But he said more field grown would cut the season compared to using container stock.

He added that a plan to build a £500,000 glasshouse to prepare plants for the retail market and increase retail sales from 30 to 50 per cent of business was on hold after Yorkshire Forward and the Rural Development Fund agreed to help because building protective polytunnels over the summer was more of a priority.

Wyevale Nurseries managing director Steve Ashworth said a survey by nursery stock consultant John Adlam of the worst hit ornamental plants would help (see p11) and would set out a clearer picture for the sector. But Ashworth predicted Viburnum Tinus, Griselina, Phormium and Escallonia would all be hard hit.

"There's some nasty things out there we're waiting to take stock of. It went from 13 degsC to -13 degsC in three weeks at the end of November and people in general might not have got their stock under cover. It was the shock of as lifetime. Our oldest employee couldn't recall such an early freeze."

Ashworth said there would be some losses on the container side, adding: "A large part of what we do is field-grown hardy stock. We ought to think of that in the future to keep the balance right. It reminds us that good old field-grown basics are worth their weight in gold."

Seiont Nurseries general manager Neil Alcock said some growers were considering changing what they grew, but added: "Three years ago there was a dry summer and everyone went to drought-resistant plants. Now after three cold winters lots of those plants will have to be thrown away." He said consumers recognised with a one-litre Cordyline sold in a pot with bedding "there is no expectation it will survive the winter".

Alcock said his Phormium production had "taken a beating" - particularly P. 'Alison Blackman', with 4,000 plants lost - adding: "We can't risk another winter like we had this year."

He said propagation house heating was well over budget and that there will be shortages of Phormium "if we lose young plants and saleable ones".


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