In some ways, the past 12 months has been an annus horribilis for many brassica growers, mainly because of the weather.
It started with a winter freeze that caused widespread damage and that the NFU estimates to have laid waste to 70 per cent of the cauliflower crop that was ready to cut for the Christmas market. That was followed by a prolonged dry spell, where in eastern counties you could count on one hand the millimetres of rain that fell during spring - adding costs for growers with irrigation, disrupting planting programmes and continuity of supply for those without. And, if we do not get enough winter rain, that lack of water is expected have an impact on next year's cropping, too.
Scotland, in contrast, suffered substantial field losses in some areas because of its particularly unsettled summer.
Where once, the shortage of product resulting from such weather-related losses may have been compensated by corresponding market prices, there is little such recompense now, says consultant Phillip Effingham, who also chairs the Brassica Growers Association (BGA). If anything, growers are penalised for the interruption to service. And the constant pressure on price is stifling the investment needed in many areas to help growers become more efficient, he says.
For instance, an automatic planter offers a significant saving in labour but is beyond the reach of many brassica growers, he points out. "It's a vicious circle," he says. "Low capital reinvestment limits market development, which, in turn, leads to small increases in market value and, with the background of rising costs, low market returns."
Gone are the days when profitability could be improved by movements in the price, he says, so instead growers have to become more efficient and find ways of cutting costs. One way to do this is by reducing waste. "If you are planting 14,000 cauliflowers per acre, you want to try and get as near to 14,000 heads sold as possible," he says. "But a good average yield would be 10,000 heads per acre, which is only 70 per cent of the potential."
"We are learning more and more about reducing our costs," says grower William Haines of Castle Farm, Chipping Campden. "Take nutrients and fertilisers. We have learnt so much about when to deliver nutrients at the right level and time."
While returns on the crop versus the increase in input costs is uppermost in growers' minds, the impending loss of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) looks a close second. "A scheme such as SAWS brings consistency to a business," says farm manager Andrew Williams of Home Farm, Nacton, Suffolk. "We know which staff are coming and how long they are staying for. We certainly need some similar system in the medium to long term - what we don't want is a situation where we are left with nothing."
Some companies are trying to rely less on agency staff. "Lots of our middle management have worked their way up through the business and we are proud of the fact they are still with us," says Produce World Marshalls technical and development director Gavin Willerton.
Research and development
Harvesting is one area that continues to see considerable investment in research and the resulting equipment could reduce the labour demand - for those growers who can afford the outlay, at least. To dispense with a manual cutter, who judges by eye which heads are ready to take, an automatic cauliflower harvester needs to be able to detect maturity to select the heads to cut. The HortLINK Caulicut project tested various ways of using imaging technology to penetrate the leaf layer to measure head size and designed a cutting mechanism. Engineering company Richard Pearson has taken the work further and says is close to demonstrating a working machine.
Meanwhile, the National Physical Laboratory has proved the potential of using microwaves as an imaging technology, but its project to apply it to cauliflowers has stalled.
A self-propelled harvesting rig is another recent innovation in broccoli. Developed by Produce World, the cut crop is packed on board, eliminating double-handling while extending shelf-life.
The Dutch engineering company Tumoba is taking a different approach, with an automatic harvester that cuts broccoli heads, strips leaves and trims the stem. This development has gone hand in hand with the Seminis Easy Harvest programme to breed a broccoli variety with an extended stem so that crowns sit proud of the leaf canopy.
Efficient harvesting depends on plantings maturing in a uniform manner. A current HortLINK project at the John Innes Centre is working on understanding better the genetics of maturity in "flowering" brassicas, which will, in the long run, reduce field losses for growers. Using purple sprouting broccoli as the experimental crop, it aims to come up with parent lines that will be more predictable in their harvest period and that can withstand temperature increases caused by a changing climate.
Meanwhile, commercial breeders have been working on brassicas' consumer appeal. Take pointed cabbage, for example, which offers sweetness, convenience, and, with new red varieties, colour, too. Dutchman, the latest variety from Nickerson-Zwaan, has high Brix levels and is dense enough to be grown as a baby, offering consumers a no-waste one-meal vegetable portion.
Cauliflower now comes in several colours, Syngenta's pink SGC8402 being a recent addition that was marketed at a number of Tesco stores this year through TH Clements. "It will only be a niche product but we hope it will help to reinvigorate the market," says Syngenta product manager Mike Molyneux.
Sprouts have been reinvented with Tozer's sprout/kale cross, "flower sprouts", while an old red variety made available by Asda last Christmas sparked interest in the traditional vegetable.
The science behind the health benefits of eating brassicas has come to the fore relatively recently. It was thanks to the publicly-funded research into these benefits that a variety of broccoli with a higher concentration of a beneficial compound arrived in Marks & Spencer stores this year.
Beneforte contains several times more glucoraphanin than other varieties, a compound thought to play a role in preventing heart disease and some forms of cancer. It was developed to help scientists at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) study the health effects of nutrients in fruit and vegetables. Marketed through Seminis, three companies are licensed to grow Beneforte, which will become available to other retailers next year. No claim is made for Beneforte other than it contains nutrients found to be beneficial to health.
"The regulation on health claims is rightly very strict," says programme leader in plant natural products and health at IFR Richard Mithen. "But we have quite a lot of evidence and will submit a more specific claim to the regulator, the European Food Safety Authority, at some stage."
Such developments are bound to help raise the profile of brassicas, but the BGA is continuing to invest in consumer promotion. By November, its Love Your Greens campaign, in its second year, had delivered 10 per cent more "opportunities" for its promotional material to be seen compared with last year. "And that's with the sprout season still to come," says Dieter Lloyd of Pam Lloyd PR, the agency behind the campaign. Traffic to the www.loveyourgreens.co.uk website has also increased, by 25 per cent.
Whatever the BGA has achieved through Love Your Greens, Effingham says it could do so much more with more widespread support from growers and produce marketing organisations. "It's part of the vicious circle," he says. "The industry would be better served, in terms of influence, marketing and in promotion, which is under-capitalised, if it operated more collaboratively."
The restriction on the use of metazachlor for weed control, to no more than 1,000g of active ingredient applied one year in three on the same field, hit intensive brassica cropping particularly hard.
The restriction was brought in last year because of worries over the chemical finding its way into watercourses.
The situation is easing, though. Specific off-label approvals (SOLA) for Dual Gold (S-metolachlor) on a range of brassicas came in 12 months ago, although applications are confined to 1 March 1 and the end of May. Wing-P, BASF's new cereal herbicide based on pendimethalin and dimethenamid-P, introduced in July, already has a SOLA for head cabbage.
Stomp Aqua, BASF's encapsulated form of pendimethalin, was approved in 2009 with on-label use pre-planting for the main brassicas. It has since gained off-label approval for post-planting use in cabbage and, in September this year, for broccoli, Brussels sprout and cauliflower. BASF recommends applications are made no later than two days post planting.
Crop advisers UAP trialled 60 herbicide treatments on cabbage at Elsoms trial ground this year to show what could be achieved by different combinations of currently-available and new products. "One herbicide yet to be introduced looks particularly promising on redshank," says UAP agronomist David Townley.
The UK area planted with brassica crops has contracted by about 5 per cent since 2007 to stand at just under 41,000ha, according to the Brassica Growers Association's figures. The area of broccoli has been increasing for some years, mainly at the expense of cauliflower, but is levelling off, while cauliflower contracts - i t was 10,692ha in 2011.
Last winter's experience has seen Cornwall gain some acreage of winter cauliflower this year, but retailers have put in place more contracts in southern Europe. "Last winter has made eastern counties' growers much more cautious," says Brassica Growers Association chairman Phillip Effingham.