Innovation is the key to continued success in the carrot and parsnip growing sector. With crippling straw prices and retail pressure to keep product prices down, growers agree that new ideas, product lines and streamlining are essential to stay competitive in the current market.
Now a raft of ideas is being unravelled in the root sector by growers looking to keep their edge in recessionary times, creating a new wave of enthusiasm in the market. For root producer Huntapac, breathing new life into the business has become a priority for the national operation. Perhaps most exciting is the company's launch of the branded carrots, Roots.
Senior technical manager Stephen Shields says: "In any supermarket, if you see just their own brand of carrots it can look a bit flat. We thought it time to create a bit of theatre in that aisle."
Its brand of "perfect-looking" carrots, grown in specific soil types to ensure a smooth finish, has thrived in the Booths chain in Lancashire and the company is now in talks with other retailers as well. The next step will be to release Roots-branded parsnips, and then products such as crisps made from carrots, parsnips and other root vegetables.
Shields says: "We are remaining very competitive through innovation. We do all the growing, packing and distribution and because we do the full remit we can look at it as efficiently as possible."
Growing methods have changed to get the same yield with less acreage. "This means fewer applications and less straw," he explains. Satellite-guided trackers are cutting down on applications, while on the transportation side weighers have been installed on all bunkers to ensure that they are at optimum capacity.
A parsnip trimming machine and automated trimming carousel have also increased efficiency and cut the level of staff, improving the number of parsnips trimmed from 16 per minute by hand to 44 by machine. Huntapac was also the first in the country to install a Newtec optical grader.
Innovation is proving a key ingredient for vegetable-growing co-operative and producer organisation Freshgro. Sliced chantenay in a pre-packed bag is being launched as part of its product range in 2011, targeting the convenience market. Managing director Martin Evans says it is conducting trials to investigate the best packaging and size for the product, but early proposals are for an 80g bag, suitable for snacks and appealing to all ages as one portion of the recommended five a day.
He says: "We can see this in petrol stations and places where people go for snacks. I can see it in places such as WHSmith and Boots. It would be a crunchy, crispy wafer-type slice of chantenay. As vegetable growers we have not reacted to people's needs. Lots of other markets have, but we haven't. We need to target convenience and we need to be updating what we do. I think as a sector, this is something we have neglected." He adds that difficult decisions need to be made to see the benefits.
Freshgro's Sainsbury's Taste the Difference brand of parsnips hit the shelves at the height of the recession but performed very well. Chantenay sales remain consistently good, even at the peak of recession. Evans says: "People know what they like. We started the purpose-bred parsnip (Piccolo), which Sainsbury's sells as a heritage brand, right in the recession. It shouldn't have worked on paper but sales are up 25 per cent and increasing." The company is currently planning the release of white and purple chantenays.
Isleham Fresh Produce business unit director George Rivers says they are always striving to introduce the latest equipment to the business and are working on carefully-guarded projects to improve the shelf-life of products.
He adds: "Some of this work on shelf-life is very new and innovative. All of these things require a great deal of investment. In this business you have to try and keep ahead of the game."
Manor Fresh technical manager Chris Goodliff agrees. He says: "Organic sales are generally quite challenging since the economic downturn." He points out that this makes it even more important to try new products. Manor Fresh attempted to sell white and orange carrots in a pack in Marks & Spencer (M&S) from the Scottish organic supply chain partners Nessgro in January but, Goodliff adds, sales had not been sustainable.
"It sold reasonably well but they did not jump off the shelves. The UK market is used to carrots being orange," says Goodliff. But he stresses the importance of trying new ideas and the company is looking to the American market where multi-coloured carrots sell well.
Nessgro was hoping to produce a rainbow pack of the vegetable but trials have not been convincing enough. The bright-orange variety Sweet Orange was launched in M&S on 14 November and Goodliff reports that sales are going well. The heritage variety St Valery will be hitting the shelves soon.
Parsnip grower, packer and marketing business R & RW Bartlett finds that new branding is often the way of reinvigorating business and sales. It felt the former 1980s brand Skippers, the logo of which showed a dalmation puppy on a rosette, was dated. So the fifth-generation, family-owned business, which now focuses on parsnips, was inspired when the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon UK-found gold was discovered close to the farm near Lichfield.
Owner Roy Bartlett says: "Staffordshire Gold for our new brand worked perfectly. It takes into account the provenance, of which we are very proud, and food miles that people care about. It is buried treasure, if you like. This kind of innovation is vital to business."
Huntapac's Shields and many other growers say the year has not yet proved a bad one for pests and diseases. "We have had low levels of cavity spot and carrot fly," says Shields. "Cavity spot will become a problem later in the season, but for now it has not been too bad."
He adds that as a company, the overall concern about the forthcoming European pesticide legislation for Huntapac would be the loss of herbicides linuron and pendimethalin.
"When the carrots start to grow and establish their foliage there is a concern that the weeds may compete against them at this early stage," he points out, adding that in spite of this, there was confidence in the sector that there would be a replacement for linuron by 2013-14.
Dr Peter Gladders from ADAS says cavity spot research by Warwick HRI's Dez Barbara confirms the theory that the disease is worse if there is water around at drilling time.
"Growers have often believed there to be a link between where there has been a lot of rain around drilling," he explains. As for sclerotinia, he adds: "This year it has an active period from late August to early September and after that it slows down."
Violet root rot, despite being prevalent in sugar beet this year, has been kind to carrots so far. But Gladders warns: "It is about, so growers should be aware although there is nothing that can be done chemical-control wise. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of growers walking their fields from late September. They must take action and straw down."
In parsnips, Gladders says there are a lot of live monitoring projects and invites growers to get in contact.
The hike in straw prices is proving crippling for carrot growers up and down the country. Growers have denied noticing a shortage but say reports of one had made a bad problem even worse.
Ian Hall, farm director of Tompsett Burgess Growers, which supplies 85 per cent of Isleham Fresh Produce's vegetables, says the rise in prices has added "considerable" costs to storage, but this was caused by other sectors, such as renewable energy and cattle, paying more for straw.
At Huntapac, Shields says the increase has been "considerable". In 2004, the company was paying £10 for 500kg of straw, but by 2009 this had risen to £24 and jumped again this year to £30.
He adds that the cost of disposing of the polythene that is put under the straw is also increasing. If it is considered "contaminated" it has to go to landfill and those costs are also rising."Cost rises are going on all the time. It's getting our customers to accept we have additional costs," he says.
Rivers says this is virtually impossible for Isleham Fresh Produce. "We are locked into fixed prices and it's hard to get things like straw prices back. We ultimately just want a fair price for our products."
R & RW Bartlett partner Rod Bartlett says straw prices are affecting them badly as parsnip growers. The particularly cold winter last year and more low temperatures predicted for this year mean that the company is putting a lot of effort into strawing its crop. Rising costs are not just down to the cold. This year, East Anglia in particular suffered a dry summer and subsequently bore high irrigation costs.
British Carrot Growers' Association secretary and treasurer John Birkenshaw believes that people's tastes favour the sweet and crunchy varieties of carrots. The association held a scientific taste competition last month to find an alternative to the staple carrot variety, Nairobi.
Tasters from Newcastle University sampled 43 varieties at the event and eventually chose Trevor from Clause UK as the winner.
The tendency for people to choose loose carrots is also declining as more customers move to purchasing pre-packs. Shields feels this is also true of parsnips and says the number of carrots being bought through supermarkets is increasing. Wholesale markets have become popular among restaurants and are not used by the retail sector.
The ability to have a steady and reliable supply of carrots to satisfy the demand over Christmas often lies in the geographical spread of farms. Some growers join forces in large-scale takeovers and cooperatives to help each other beat the weather.
For Huntapac, this has meant that it has not needed to import parsnips or carrots from outside the UK in five years. Shields says: "Our growing model is to spread the risk geographically. We start in Suffolk and work up to Inverness. And if someone else is running short, we can help them out."
With another cold winter predicted, growers are already busy strawing their best crops to ensure that they can reliably supply carrots for 11 months of the year. Before farmers adopted this practice in the 1990s, carrots were predominantly a summer vegetable.
Rivers from Isleham said with Christmas and Boxing Day falling on a Saturday and Sunday this year, the week ahead would see people stockpiling. Similarly, at R & RW Bartlett, its sales of parsnips and carrots quadruple at Christmas time so preparation will be key for Roy Bartlett and the team.