State of the industry: brassicas

The sector sold more last year but returns to growers still lagged behind. Sue Jupe unpicks the highs and lows.

Elsoms' breeding programme has produced two swede hybrids - image: Elsoms
Elsoms' breeding programme has produced two swede hybrids - image: Elsoms

Although brassica consumption improved in 2010, last year proved to be another tough year for the crop's producers, according to Brassica Growers Association (BGA) chairman Phillip Effingham.

The BGA's "Love Your Greens" campaign helped to halt and begin to reverse the downward trend in broccoli, sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and swede consumption, but sales values and producer's returns still fell overall.

Last year saw several periods of oversupply and adverse weather conditions that caused pest and disease issues and high field wastage. Effingham explains: "Whitefly was a real problem in August and September on all crops but particularly kale and broccoli."

Brassica growers also saw increased incidences of thrips last summer due to dry weather that forced many of them - particularly in the Lincolnshire area - to irrigate as their crops struggled to establish. The winter's big freeze only caused further problems, as growers saw 70 per cent of their cauliflower crop destroyed by sub-zero temperatures.

Lincolnshire brassica grower and NFU Board for Horticulture & Potatoes chairman Sarah Pettitt adds that rising input costs were and continue to be an additional pressure for growers.

She says: "Input costs are rising. Seed costs have risen sharply in the last two years, as has fertiliser, plant protection and fuel."

Pettitt believes the withdrawal of the soil-incorporated herbicide trifluralin a couple of years ago plunged the industry back 50 years. "Instead of costing £5 per hectare for good weed control, producers have reverted to hand weeding, which costs £50-£60 per hectare."

In a bid to help, the NFU Input Price Monitor, which covers key production ingredients, enables growers to benchmark prices and identify trends by pinpointing optimum purchase times.

Pettitt also remains concerned over the future of plant protection products containing endocrine disrupters. These substances are suspected of interfering with hormone systems in humans and wildlife. "With uncertainty over which triggers will be included in the definition of endocrine disrupters, it is unclear which actives are at risk," she warns.

"The NFU is taking a lead getting the message across - while the UK Government is broadly quite supportive, legislation in Europe has changed from risk based to hazard based." She urges the industry to look at bio-controls and other new technologies. On a positive note, Pettitt believes there is some hope for brassicas because their health benefits are well researched and beginning to register with the general public.

To support this trend, the BGA is continuing its Love Your Greens campaign in 2011 and says it is committed as an organisation to boosting brassica consumption to deliver value to producers. After a modest £6,000 pilot campaign in 2009 that successfully highlighted the plight of UK cauliflower growers, BGA members funded the £25,000 promotional campaign, centring on the Love Your Greens website - www.loveyourgreens.co.uk - that was launched last February.

As reported in Grower (5 February 2010), managing the project is Pam Lloyd of fresh produce PR company Pam Lloyd PR, who says the campaign aims to "eschew old and negative attitudes towards brassicas" and "inspire, educate and inform consumers".

The website focuses on the most familiar brassicas - broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, swede and cabbage. Visitor numbers to the site have been modest so far - around 3,000 by December - but this is not unusual for a fresh produce website in its first half year, according to Pam Lloyd PR director Dieter Lloyd.

"While some visitors have spent 10 minutes on the site, the average visit has been around three minutes," adds Lloyd. "But the time spent on the site, plus the average number of pages viewed, have been very encouraging."

Having highlighted broccoli's health benefits in the summer, the promotional team turned its attention to sprouts in the important lead up to Christmas. "The wider campaign hinges on recipe-led editorial in magazines," explains Pam Lloyd PR consultant Madeleine Waters. "By using recipe development, we are encouraging consumers to think about sprouts in different ways, to educate them on cooking times and to encourage people to try them again and experience the new sweeter varieties."

One of the success stories of the campaign is the cauliflower's increasing popularity. After a decade of falling sales, Kantar Worldpanel data for the year ending 31 October 2010 show that cauliflower volume sales were up by 3.8 per cent on the previous 12-month period. Prior to that, it had declined by 9.6 per cent.

Cauliflower is often seen as the poor relation of the brassica family. It is demanding to grow, labour intensive to harvest and delivers marketable yields of 65 per cent, compared to 95 per cent for Savoy cabbages.

"Cauliflowers do not offer a lot of latitude - when the crop is ready, it's ready," says Elsoms crop manager for brassica John Constable. "Crops such as sprouts offer greater flexibility and storage potential." However, he is hopeful that the launch of the campaign has helped. While conceding the crop does have potential to generate considerable wastage, Effingham says it can be lucrative if the weather is right.

"There is often a big demand for cauliflowers in September. If it is a little colder and the crop hangs back, consumption can rise. With salads, when the sun comes out, production and consumption both tend to increase. Conversely, with cauliflowers production increases and consumption tends to fall away," he adds.

Sustained temperatures of -8 degs C and below are also a major concern because thawed curds rot quickly. A harsh winter causes considerable quality issues and financial pain to growers - as seen at the end of last year. But Kent-based brassica grower and the newly-elected chairman of the BGA's public relations committee Geoff Philpott tells Grower that the weather was only part of the problem. He feels that supermarkets should be paying UK cauliflower growers more for their produce.

"Retailers will pay £1.20 a piece for French cauliflower, but won't for the same English product," he says. "Two years ago, when growers were short of cauliflower, the supermarkets fixed a low retail price. There's no fat left - margins are non-existent. I need 49p per cauliflower and growers are not getting that. Supermarkets need to incentivise growers to get the best quality."

Commenting on the cabbage sector, Constable says the market has become split over the past decade. "Pointed or sweetheart cabbage, which is fast growing and tender, is dominating, while diced spring greens, a bottom-shelf product, has held on to its own. Among green cabbages Savoy has come out on top, while a host of winter semi-wrinkled types have lost out. Small white cabbage is also taking a bit of a hit."

He adds that consumers are showing a preference for sweeter-tasting brassica - particularly in products such as Brussels sprouts. "The industry cannot afford to go back to bitter-tasting sprouts. New varieties of brassica must deliver quality, yield and good disease resistance to reduce chemical inputs," he insists.

With 70 per cent of the UK sprout crop consumed during Christmas week, John Lankfer Produce devotes more than 50 per cent of its production to the December sprout variety Colomus, from Tozer Seeds. "It's popular with retailers because it produces highly uniform size and shape sprouts," says sales manager Lee Parker. "We sell on the stalk, loose and pre-packed. For the early slot, we rely on Maximus."

Last year, Wisbech-based John Lankfer Produce hit the headlines with Tozer's red sprout Red Ball, which was destined for Asda stores. Parker describes the variety as slightly smaller with a nutty taste.

Meanwhile, broccoli remains popular with consumers of all ages, benefiting from a healthy image, sweet taste and being easy to prepare. Recent varietal introductions have extended the UK growing season but imports dominate between November and May. Alongside purple sprouting and other niche types, such as Tenderstem and Bellaverde, Constable believes there is room for more. "Sprouting broccoli is better suited to the UK climate and can be produced year round, with Spanish imports supplementing demand in January and February," he says.

According to Parker, broccoli consumption dipped by 15 per cent last summer, due in part to good weather and some unusually high retail prices.Relying on Marathon (Sakata) and Ironman (Seminis) for the early and main season, John Lankfer switches to Steel (Seminis) for the late season.

"Once planted, the crop needs water within five days," he explains. "With a lack of rainfall last year we were fortunate to have had access to irrigation." The harsh winter of 2009 helped knock back over-wintering pests in 2010, including slugs and caterpillars, but whitefly proved problematic in broccoli and kale crops in August and September.

According to Parker, this pest was still evident in some brassica crops later on in the year. "Whitefly is almost indestructible - if we get perfect conditions in spring it will be off again," he warns.

The swede also had a tough time last year according to Kantar Worldpanel figures, with volume and sales decreasing by nearly nine per cent. Nevertheless, Elsoms Seeds is investing in its future as part of its in-house breeding programme, which has already produced two new hybrids - Tyne and Tweed.

Constable says: "As a company we are always looking to invest in breeding programmes that benefit UK growers. Brown heart, a condition causing internal breakdown, remains a major issue. It is believed to be linked to boron or calcium availability. With virtually all UK mainland crop now grown under nets to keep the cabbage root fly out, leaf health has also become a focus of our long-term breeding programme."

PRODUCTION TRENDS

UK brassica production currently stands at 26,547ha according to provisional Defra statistics for 2009-10 - a drop of 166ha on the previous year. Production has declined by 8,084ha over the past decade, with sprout production almost halving from 5,650ha to 3,025ha.

Spring cabbage, summer/autumn cabbage and broccoli production have remained fairly stable at 2,400ha, 1,545ha and 7,500ha respectively.

Winter cabbage production has shrunk by more than 40 per cent to 3,081ha, while cauliflowers have slumped by 25 per cent to 8,950ha. Of course, the introduction of higher-yielding varieties has offset some of this decline.

EBB AND FLOW OF DEMAND

Value (pounds '000s)
w/e w/e YoY w/e YoY
2 Nov 08 1 Nov 09 change 31 Oct 10 change

Broccoli 165,644 173,945 5.0% 178,749 2.8%
Brussels sprouts 49,893 54,343 8.9% 52,909 -2.6%
Cabbage 89,983 89,647 -0.4% 84,211 -6.1%
Cauliflower 102,039 103,231 1.2% 101,285 -1.9%
Swedes 46,389 44,938 -3.1% 40,973 -8.8%

Volume sales ('000s kg)
w/e w/e YoY w/e YoY
2 Nov 08 1 Nov 09 chnge 31 Oct 10 chnge

Broccoli 95,015 87,381 -8.0% 88,744 1.6%
Brussels sprouts 36,061 37,876 5.0% 37,116 -2.0%
Cabbage 83,631 79,469 -5.0% 82,453 3.8%
Cauliflower 116,850 105,678 -9.6% 109,697 3.8%
Swedes 47,762 45,188 -5.4% 41,224 -8.8%

Supplied by Kantar Worldpanel


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