Growers' plea to planners: let us build glass

Lea Valley growers are ready to produce more but planning is still blocking the way, says Sophie Barnett.

Glasshouses - image: UK Salads
Glasshouses - image: UK Salads

Next year the Lea Valley Growers' Association (LVGA) will be celebrating its 100th anniversary.

A century on, its members say the LVGA remains as vital today as when it was formed in 1911.

Although some of the issues that affected pre-war glasshouse growers have altered, others have barely changed. At its height in 1962, there were 550 growers in the Lea Valley area - today there are 110.

Land laid to glasshouses has come full circle. Lea Valley currently has just 202ha of glass, a similar level to 100 years ago. Despite this, today's production vastly exceeds that of the 445ha of glasshouses the valley growers had at their height.

LVGA secretary Lee Stiles says: "The association is still as strong as it was 100 years ago. It still faces challenges and members still need to get their voice to Government."

During the LVGA's golden jubilee celebrations in 1961 the then chairman said the association was formed to "express the aims, objects, views and ambitions of its members to Governments and other official bodies in order that social justice is available to all".

The LVGA became a branch of the NFU in 1926 but its aims remain the same. Today, one of the greatest challenges for its members is expansion hampered by the planning system, which is stopping growers from building modern horticultural facilities.

Mark Lever, technical manager at UK Salads, says: "We would like to expand but the problem is getting hold of the land to build on and getting it through planning. If we could buy land to put up glass, we'd sell whatever we produced. We'd like to cut back on imports and have more of the English product."

UK Salads commercial director Pasquale Milazzo adds: "It's frustrating for us. We know that our customers (the supermarkets) would like more English produce. They keep telling us English is what they want. Selling it would not be a problem."

The company was able to buy another 0.8ha of glass, taking it up to 6ha, when a neighbouring nursery owner retired. This allowed it to expand from the cucumber-growing business into pepper growing. But Milazzo says these opportunities come up too rarely.

The acreage of glass owned by LVGA members has remained virtually static since 1962, with the natural progression for smaller growers to retire and sell their glass to neighbouring growers.

Stiles explains: "Technology has advanced to an extent where yield is near to the limit, therefore London's increasing demand for fresh salad and vegetable products cannot be met with the existing acreage.

"To meet demand, local authorities and Government will need to act positively to help growers obtain land at economically-viable prices and encourage capital investment to ensure that fresh supplies are available in the future."

Last autumn the association welcomed news that the London Assembly was commissioning a study into whether the planning system could do more to support food growing in and around the capital.

But LVGA chairman Gary Taylor says an LVGA invitation to London mayor Boris Johnson to visit a nursery to find out how planning rules and public views are blocking expansion has fallen on deaf ears.

"We heard nothing back, sadly. We have since decided, from looking at the report, that their focus appears to be more on residents producing food in gardens and allotments rather than commercially-grown food. But we haven't given up. I'm not disillusioned. I was heartened by the drive and the invitation to him is still there."

The report, published in January, highlighted that green belt land may be used by agriculture, but planning authorities were giving it a much lower priority when formulating borough policies and making planning decisions.

But Stiles says it was extremely frustrating for growers seeing the Lea Valley Regional Park on their doorsteps and it being off-limits. "Their policy is not to allow any land for growing and yet they are building a white water canoeing site for the Olympics.

He says: "Every grower would love to expand operations, just tagging on to what they already have. They can't produce any more yield with what they've got. They would like to help meet London's food crisis, but they can't."

The report also states: "There is a good case to be made that commercial agriculture is one of the best and most productive land uses in the green belt. It also recognises how the "viability of commercial food growing is affected by the planning system; a system that has not evolved to reflect the modern needs of commercial agriculture and which fails to support the necessary diversification of agricultural activity". Lea Valley growers remain hopeful action will be taken after the report.

Changes

Back in the early days of the Valley growers, cut flowers made up a large proportion of production and were mainly sold through the wholesale markets. But by 1951, records show that 283ha of the total 445ha of glass were used to grow tomatoes.

By 1962, cucumbers took up the largest area, at 121ha of the 294ha under glass, partly due to the influx of Sicilian growers during the 1960s and the difficulty of growing tomatoes compared with cucumbers. Today only 2ha of glasshouse are used for tomatoes and peppers are steadily increasing at 12ha.

Peppers are becoming more popular as consumers demand changes, although there is still only one dedicated aubergine grower, more and more growers are trialling varieties with a view to changing their crop.

UK Salads started growing peppers - cupra, prego, fiesta and orange glory - three years ago due to supermarket demand. Lever says: "The customers we have are fair to us, so we want to help them. We are lucky to have a good working relationship."

With the big four supermarkets controlling 75 per cent of the grocery market, the London Assembly report also claims it will attempt to look at how the wholesale markets, as the former hub between growers and retailers, have declined.

It says: "Planning policies could help food producers from the capital and its fringes have more opportunities to sell their produce directly to Londoners through farmers' markets, wholesale markets and innovative supply chains."

The future

Next year's centenary celebrations will both commend the successes of the Valley growers and raise their profile. Members are arranging an open day at a nursery to show the general public how it works in practice.

Taylor says: "There are many people who are not aware that peppers and cucumbers are grown on their doorstep. We are hoping we can increase their enthusiasm for what is being grown in their community."

Horticultural consultant for Valley growers Derek Hargreaves says there is a lot of optimism. "This is probably the cleanest year there has been for a very long time," he adds. "I have seen almost no thrips about and little else. The mildew-tolerant varieties have helped and there is virtually no sign of whitefly at the moment due to good use of biocontrols."

Production is down due to light levels being poor at the start of the year, with cucumbers in particular being hard hit. Many of the cucumber growers in the valley are producing about three crops a year and started picking at the beginning of February. Hargreaves says: "It is now all about promoting sales and we need good weather and barbecues for that."

Taylor says the best way to improve businesses would be to expand them, but it does not look likely in the current climate. "As much as it would better our argument, we can't say if we don't expand we will go out of business - because, as beneficial as expanding would be, we won't," he admits. "Instead, we are constantly looking at ways to streamline the business. It is the only way forward."

The majority of producers have already installed combined heat and power systems or similar energy saving concepts. Taylor says: "Here in the past ten years we have reduced staff by 60 per cent, energy by 55 per cent and had a 20 per cent reduction in water. We are working on reducing energy whenever we can."

For the past two years, Valley Grown Nurseries has been trialling de-leafing pepper plants to reduce water and energy costs and reduce biological inputs. It is also holding aphid trials using cereal aphid banker plant-rearing systems to maintain a background level of beneficials in the crop that would be difficult to achieve by standard biological introductions.

Taylor says he enjoys discovering new ways to improve the business and sharing them with the industry through his various roles including chair of the Horticultural Development Company's protected crops panel and pepper technology group.

He adds: "There is a fine line between maintaining a competitive edge and doing something for the rest of the industry. The LVGA and other industry groups are bridging the gap to help the industry."

In the long term, Taylor expects the nursery industry to remain relatively static and the bulk of salads to be imported, unless nurseries are allowed to expand.

He says: "Smaller growers will continue to struggle to survive long term. But the expansion of medium to large growers means it is difficult to see the effect of these smaller growers disappearing. We all need to be very proactive in looking at our costs and returns. Otherwise, we are all at risk."


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