Harvest Challenge

This year's wet summer looks set to have a knock-on effect for growing-media prices in 2013, says Matthew Appleby.

Scotts' Expand 'n Gro - image: Scotts
Scotts' Expand 'n Gro - image: Scotts

Next season looks to be a year of consolidation for the growing-media industry after several big launches in 2012. Scotts Expand ‘n Gro and Westland’s Light & Easy went into garden centres this year and the companies are looking to establish the brands further in 2013.

Vital Earth hooked up with Bord na Móna for a peat-reduced Growise product in 2012 and with the RSPB to endorse its own peat-free product. Sinclair says all growing-media companies found 2012 a tough year to meet sales targets because of the poor weather. Growing-media sales nationwide were down around 19 per cent per cent by the end of June compared to 2012.

Meanwhile, compost prices are set to rise an estimated 10-15 per cent in 2013 because of the wet summer, with the shortage possibly bringing down the amount of peat used in growing media.

Garden writer Peter Seabrook says: "The cost of peat is in direct relation to the rain we get in June, July and early August. This weather will mean a terrible harvest right across Europe. Supplies will be short and peat will be wet and heavy. The biggest cost is transport, and limited supplies and heavy peat will both mean price rises. I wouldn’t be surprised if prices went up 10-15 per cent. This could bring down the amount of peat used in compost."

Intense pressure

Sinclair retail managing director Danny Adamson says: "The industry remains under intense pressure to source quality materials in sufficient quantities, particularly as peat harvests once again suffer due to adverse weather. Sinclair will be investing in its second Superfyba, peat replacement, machine. Producing significant quantities of this quality material will reduce our reliance on peat harvesting and further facilitate the move towards peat-free."

Horticultural Development Company chairman Neil Bragg asks: "Tell me a crop where we are not facing a problem? You could argue that’s why materials other than peat become more important — such as bark, woodchip, coir and composted green waste. The last dreadful year was 1998. One of the points Alan Knight makes in his Growing Media Task Force report is we can’t be wedded to a single material and this year is a good example of why you need other materials." Garden Industry Manufac-turers Association director Neil Gow adds: "If we can get retail prices up, it will be a good thing."

Bulrush professional products director James Hayes, who is also Growing Media Association (GMA) chair, says: "We have plans to grow our business but raw materials supplies are going to be challenging for the 2013 season.

"We are waiting for another three or four weeks before taking a decision on 2013 pricing levels in the hope that weather conditions may yet allow some late harvesting. Given the weather patterns this year that may be a vain hope and, if it is, some raw materials will be in short supply in Ireland and the UK and prices will increase to reflect this." He adds that some multiple retailers are leaving it late to choose suppliers for 2013.

Vital Earth managing director Steve Harper says: "It’s quiet in the market. There’s not a lot of noise about what people are doing. Compost prices should have gone up years ago. This year, everyone has had a bad harvest so if there was ever a year for prices to rise it should be this year. No one has vast quantities and they are going to have to buy from more expensive external sources.

"But I’ve heard customers say some manufacturers aren’t putting up prices. It’s not been a good season. The shame was it started well in March and could have been a bumper year. But GfK data was awful. By the end of June, sales were down nearly 19 per cent year on year. At the end of April, it was more than 40 per cent. Because Vital Earth and Growise are young businesses, we’re still picking up new business, but for more established companies it has to have been a bad year."

Harper says Vital Earth’s brands were in one-third more garden centres than at the start of 2012, with having the peat-reduced brand alongside peat-free Vital Earth helping penetration, albeit with some on trial. He will promote the firm’s RSPB brand at Glee (NEC Birmingham, 17-19 September) along with its Growise product.

Show introductions

Scotts growing-media introduction at Glee is an eight-litre size of Miracle-Gro Expand ‘n Gro (launched at Glee last year) to compete with small-bag composts. Sales of Expand ‘n Gro were £1m in the first year, with the product 10th in the GfK branded growing-media chart. Westland has yet to announce any introductions for the trade show.

The big distraction in 2012 was the Growing Media Task Force, whose chairman Alan Knight sent a report to Government in August trying to find a way to wind down peat use before 2020 (retail) and 2030 (grower) targets.

GMA manager Tim Briercliffe says: "The consumer isn’t really interested in the peat debate. They’re just interested in quality growing media. They want to know, what is the good growing media for me in the future that I can confidently grow plants in? That’s the reality of what concerns them. How do you know you’re going to get a good product if you don’t buy peat? How can the manufacturers or retailer show that to them?"

Briercliffe adds that the task force report "gave a good balanced picture". He says the HTA is working on developing a performance standard for peatless compost after the task force asked it to. "This is a performance standard for alternatives so consumers can have real confidence in the market and it will be piloted in early 2013." It is not an official BSI but a mark that manufacturers can claim to have achieved to give confidence to the trade. It will be less about the physical and chemical properties and more about consumer experience "in a scientifically robust way", he suggests.

Also part of the task force, Paul Alexander at the RHS is assessing the sustainability of different materials because "we don’t want to move away from peat to a less sustainable product".

The Government will now respond to the task force report. Briercliffe and Harper found a Parliamentary select committee report, which came out at the same time as the task force report, calling for the deadlines to come forward "strange". Briercliffe asks whether the MPs have "even looked at the report". Harper says the select committee’s advice is key because if the target dates for elimination of consumer growing media come forward "it could happen but it will happen badly".

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