State of the industry: alliums

In spite of last year's poor weather, growers are cautiously optimistic for the year ahead, says Jez Abbott.

Garlic growers may be affected by changes to visa regulations for seasonal workers - image: The Garlic Farm
Garlic growers may be affected by changes to visa regulations for seasonal workers - image: The Garlic Farm

Forget Delia Smith, Nigella Lawson and Antony Worrall Thompson. Without Mervyn Casey, Jonathan Tole and Colin Boswell it would not happen. Noel is no more, but the season that launched a thousand Christmas cookbooks would be less festive without the latter three growers bearing gifts of garlic, shallot and leek on the 25 December and throughout 2011.

Delia's Happy Christmas, for example, would be no such thing without the alliums that give lustre and life to almost every savoury dish - from turkey and trimmings to potted pork with juniper, thyme and marmalade of shallot.

As the next 12 months peel away, unpredictable weather, limited seed varieties and harsher pesticide rules are likely to determine whether joy or pain, challenges or opportunities face growers this year. Casey, a leek grower in New York, Lincolnshire, is currently weighing up the damage from recent frosts and summer droughts. It could be severe and have knock-on effects for this year.

"In the past we could call on imports from Holland and Belgium, but they've also been hit," he says. "Even without the bad weather, there was always going to be a question with yields of late crops because of the drought. Lack of moisture caused problems with germination in May and the recent bad weather could make matters even worse."

When Casey asked a Dutch breeder why there were no winter-hardy varieties available, he was told: "It is not a factor we breed for any more because of global warming," he says. Instead, they hone earliness, shelf life and disease resistance. The really good winter varieties have given way to hybrids such as Kenton and Harston, while more growers push main crop varieties later on in the season.

This is risky because one bad spell can mean trouble. A year ago, two-fifths of a field of Casey's Belton leeks were destroyed by a cold snap early in the year. It could happen again but growers will continue to take that risk this year. Casey says losses are inevitable but the weather in the following weeks will determine just how great they will be.

"Cold weather does have its advantages though," he adds. "It encourages demand because people tuck into meat and veg in the cold seasons. We may no longer have the traditional family around the table, we may be succumbing to fast food and pasta, but the desire for good winter fare still affects sales more than any other factor, so there's room for optimism in 2011."

The cold weather has also kept the spread of disease in check. Apart from the thrip triggered by drought last year, the big chill has prevented disease from taking hold. Casey and his team will still keep an eye out for other problems though, such as white tip. The loss of pesticides this year will push up costs of control by hand or mechanical means, as will gangmaster licensing.

"Problems caused by loss of chemistry and increasingly hot, dry summers will hit most of us this year," says Casey. "On the continent, of course, growers have the liquid equivalent of slug pellets and such like, which is unfair and nonsense. Ongoing price wars by the multiples, meanwhile, will continue to squeeze prices for suppliers and rising fuel and energy prices will hurt."

Casey will not forecast prices in 2011, but another allium grower believes vegetable growers - unlike cereal growers who are enjoying high prices - will see average prices drop by 15 per cent against 2010. Costs of nitrogen, for example, have soared on the back of the bumper cereal prices. "Good for them," says Casey. "But we pay the same and don't get the benefit."

Hammond Produce crop-production director Philip Lilley is playing a waiting game. Two feet of snow in the east Midlands bent leek shanks to 45 degs angles and -17 degsC temperatures caused a translucency of the inner leaves. With harvesting carefully programmed for 10 months' supply, the cold weather now is likely to affect the entire year.

"Even in February we can be shivering at -10 degsC so there are still difficult times ahead," says Lilley. "Low temperatures mean we have to look at storage systems, which are not always seen as cost effective. But if these conditions become more prevalent we must find ways of supplying what the customer wants. Growers may look at refining cold storage this year."

Lilley agrees with Casey that chemical restrictions will force a rethink on practices this year. Hammond Produce is working with the Horticultural Development Company on monitoring pesticides in the UK and mutual recognition in Europe. This will mean sharp learning curves for growers, who will be looking at hand and mechanical weeding, says Lilley.

Siblings Robert and Sarah Oldershaw, who grow 80ha of onions near Spalding for Asda, Waitrose and the Co-op, think demand will be driven by continuing financial hardship, as families cut back on eating out at restaurants and stay home instead. Robert, chair of the British Onions Producers' Association (BOPA), says supermarkets saw up to 80 per cent increases in onion sales last year. "Optimism should err on the side of caution though as the weather conditions have overridden any prospect of quality matching that of the previous season," he adds.

He is overseeing a marketing push in 2011 including a revamped website. "There is enough crop to meet demand in the short term but supplies later in the season could be tight."

Shallot growers can also expect a mixed bag in 2011, he adds. Though the total retail value has risen nearly 50 per cent to £8.6m in five years, shallot growers must look to the skies. He predicts another successful year despite a late start, which delayed harvesting. Crops in store at the moment were harvested when there was a lot of rain.

"We will inevitably have more problems with onions and shallots than the previous year, when they were were harvested in perfect conditions. To what extent this shows later in the season is anyone's guess. Retail remains largely buoyant thanks to world shortages," he says, looking at countries such as India, where exports were banned after its own crop blight.

His father, Robert Oldershaw senior, believes reductions in the number of active ingredients will have no dramatic affect on yields and tonnages this year. But having endured one of the coldest winters in living memory, he is wary about global warming. "Call me a bit of an old sceptic, but I don't think climate change will have any effect whatsoever in the short term."

BOPA research and development committee chair Alastair Findlay, who grows in Bedford, says the onion market is "buzzing", with shortages in Russia as well as India. It could be an interesting year, he adds, and he is feeling optimistic."We were lucky with the rain and got most of the crop in before it fell. The onion industry is very mechanised, like potatoes, with not such heavy labour demands. The one big issue is the reduction in active ingredients and the switch in one fell swoop from risk to hazard. The loss of pre-emergence pesticides will cause enormous problems this year for onion growers."

Former BOPA chair Jonathan Tole says costs this year for onion growers will rise because of delays in harvesting and the need to pay for drying after a wetter season in 2010. It will be "definitely more difficult than last year in quality, growing season and harvesting", he adds. Season length will be determined by the keeping quality of the crop.

Rising prices for garlic, Tole says, will be driven by shortages in Spain and China. The latter is growing fewer crops due to higher labour costs but consumption has risen because of the public's belief that garlic protects against swine flu. The UK grows around 550 tonnes, with production concentrated in the south, bar a few pockets such as the Really Garlicky Co in the Highlands.

Colin and Jenny Boswell, who run The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, will grow up to 30ha of the crop this year for delicatessans and farm shops. The husband-and-wife team put a premium on quality, which outshines garlic from abroad, they say. However, a big rise in acreage in Spain this year will affect prices elsewhere in Europe.

That said, Colin reckons the market will be "reasonable" for the next 18 months, with slightly better returns than last year. Garlic is resilient, but a cold crunch in February could cause misshapen bulbs. Though "nothing happens dramatically" with garlic, growers are always trialling new varieties. The Boswells are pinning much hope on Tuscany Wight.

"This is long keeping and has large cloves throughout the bulb, so it's a big hit with chefs and cooks. Garlic is a high-cost crop to produce and does not respond well to heavy mechanisation. Labour is therefore crucial and we have a good indigenous island workforce.

"We also rely heavily on Romanians, so changes in the rules on seasonal workers could affect our sector. I hope the new Government will not toe a totally crass line on immigration. But I'm optimistic. Like all vegetables, there will always be a market for good quality."

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