The recent news that Kent grower Robert Montgomery, whose family has grown cauliflowers for generations, was turning his 94ha over to glasshouse production appeared to be a sad indicator of the Brassica sector's decline.
As a crop they are labour-intensive, risky and offer low margins, which are being squeezed further by rising costs and static prices. This year the weather has added a further, often dispiriting challenge.
However, all is not lost for this bastion of traditional British farming and cooking. Growers who manage to invest in mechanisation and marketing stand to gain as the health and environmental benefits of these mostly locally grown crops slowly become more widely appreciated.
Though it seemed a few years ago as if brassicas were in terminal decline, the total planted area has levelled out after a slump in the late 1990s. However, the consequences of higher cereal prices could see that figure dip again next year as farmers opt for less demanding crops.
Improvements in production and a slight overall upturn in farm gate prices have meant the value of home production has risen slowly but steadily since the start of the decade, although this has yet to return to mid-1990s levels.
Relative to other areas of horticulture though, imports have had only a marginal impact on the home-grown Brassica industry and import levels for all main Brassica crops have remained stable since the start of the decade.
A tough year
The summer weather was "a disaster" for Brassica growers, says GreenGene International consultant Professor Geoff Dixon. "The soil structure was badly damaged by the heavy rain and the implications of that have yet to be determined. A lot of crops were destroyed and fertiliser was carried off in drainage water. It hit crops in their major growing phase and did winter crops no good at all."
In terms of its effect on supply, Dixon says the summer has been a double-edged sword. "There are your losses because of the weather directly, but then there are the reduced harvests later on. It will have a short-term economic effect due to shortage of supply. It will also have a longer-term effect on husbandry, soil structure, drainage and diseases." This will have effects down the supply chain, he says - one of which is a likely rise in winter vegetable prices, providing some consolation for growers.
Allium & Brassica Centre agronomist Andy Richardson agrees that it has been a "particularly grim" year. "Brassicas have been hardest hit by the weather," he says.
"Growers held off planting until after the heavy rains in July had passed, so have been harvesting later this year. The quality's pretty good, but there's shed-loads around right now, and it's clashed with the arrival of the Spanish crop."
Despite that, he says, overall volumes this season are down "significantly", at 60-70 per cent of usual levels. Late-harvesting growers are also finding that with lower light levels and cooler temperatures, crop quality is suffering.
Certain diseases have also thrived in the wet. "There have been problems with ring spot, Xanthomona and Pseudomona," says Richardson. "Though without the dry autumn, things could have been worse."
Dixon adds: "The Achilles heel of brassicas is clubroot, and it loves warm, wet weather."
His advice for restoring soil structure is to give fields "a good deep ploughing, right now", first with a chisel plough to rip up the soil's substructure, then with a mole board.
Growers have to bring a high degree of expertise and commitment to brassicas, which is not always repaid, says Dixon.
"You need to commission a plant propagator to supply you with seedlings at the right time. You're looking at two or three crops a year - the first covered with plastic fleece, the second in the open air, the third perhaps also covered.
"You need to control pests and diseases, and provide a product that the market demands in terms of quality, size, weight and colour, which needs a good deal of knowledge. You then have to actually sell it."
So when alternative crops become more viable, there is a strong attraction to switch. And the current high costs of cereals, will increase land values, which, according to Richardson, "will make a marginal crop like brassicas even more marginal".
Landowners may also decide that cereal prices are high enough that they will grow those themselves, rather than rent land to specialist Brassica growers, Richardson adds - in which case they will find they are spared much of the intensive husbandry brassicas require. "When supermarkets come along with their contracts, growers are likely to ask, 'why should I go to the trouble, when I could grow barley or wheat, with less risk?'," he says.
Barley prices have increased nearly 40 per cent over last year, and growers could expect to yield 10 tonnes a hectare, sellable at £160 a tonne, Dixon adds.
"Growers won't have to think too hard to change crop," he says. "Supermarkets have been screwing them for years, and they've had to accept it. Now they can turn round and say, 'I'll leave it, thanks'."
NFU horticulture board vice-chair Sarah Pettitt agrees that margins are tight. "Right now we're walking a tightrope," she says. "Inflation is all around, including in labour, but there's little increase in the price paid by the consumer, despite the massive impact of the weather."
Brassicas are a labour-intensive sector, and by some estimates, as much as two-thirds of grower costs are swallowed up by pay. In recent years all that has prevented this from soaring away completely is the availability of migrant labour.
But many areas of the economy which demand outdoor manual labour are finding that migrant workers are opting instead for less physically demanding, and often better paid, indoor work.
Brassica Growers' Association R&D committee chairman Fred Tyler says: "They can move on, for example to supermarket distribution centres, where they can earn more money."
Pettitt says: "Over the past 10 years the industry has gone down the route of mechanised harvesting and packing." These are now often combined in the field, reducing handling and waste disposal. "You still have to use a lot of labour though. Much of the work involves judgement on whether plants have the right size and colour."
Low margins continue to restrict investment in labour-saving technology. As labour costs continue to rise, it is likely to be the larger growers who are better able to achieve the economies of scale required for such investment.
One silver lining to the cloudy summer was that consumers reportedly opted for cooking vegetables over salads. "Prices on the whole did go up," says East of Scotland Growers (ESG) crops manager Richard Haacker. "Now they have to stay where they are."
Tyler says: "Growers are having to work extremely hard to meet the demands of the supermarkets, which continue to take large margins." Shortages in domestic supply have meant that the big buyers have also been sourcing from overseas, he adds.
If cereals do claim a significantly larger share of Grade 1 land use, the question will then arise of whether and to what extent imports from southern Europe or North Africa take the place of UK brassicas, says Dixon.
Haacker, whose company currently accounts for 95 per cent of British Brassica production, is concerned that supermarkets may make the switch if they are unable to source the volumes and quality they require at home.
"They need to have produce on their shelves, come what may," he says. "Foreign growers have lower labour costs - our workforce is one of the most expensive in Europe. Can we compete?"
Brassicas have not been helped by the reluctance of today's householders to spend much time cooking. The acreage given over to what were the main standard crops - cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts - has declined by around 40 per cent over the past 15 years, though this has levelled off in the past three or four, according to Richardson. "Only calabrese and broccoli have bucked the trend," he says.
"It's easier to prepare and children prefer it. It's a shame. With some good marketing, emphasising their health benefits, brassicas could make a comeback."
Grower and British Sprout Growers' Association president Roger Welberry believes that "We need celebrity chefs to promote Brussels sprouts in different ways, like eating them raw.
"Right now it's a seven-month crop, but that could be extended, rather than bringing in from South Africa or Australia in summer. 'British grown' is being promoted on packaging, and customers are becoming aware of it, but it's a slow process."
One consequence of the erratic summer weather is a probable shortage of seed next year, says Richardson. "Most of it is produced in France and Italy, and the seed-growing areas of these countries have either had a very wet summer, as we did, or a hot and dry one."
This will not lead to fields lying unplanted, he says. "There's always seed to be had - you just might not get the variety you want."
Further along, many take greater consolidation in the sector as a given. A report prepared last year for the National Horticulture Forum recommended further consolidation of companies, "to create economies of scale and so free up finance for investment in technology required to reduce input costs". The report also suggested developing new convenience-based products and packaging formats and capitalising on premium retailers as opportunities to increase margins.
Welberry says: "The future is looking quite good. There will be fewer acres, farmed by bigger specialist growers. But demand is good and brassicas grow well here."
Pettitt also takes a positive view. "There are a lot of changes on the horizon," she says. "We're already seeing consolidation - people coming together in a positive way, pooling technical and support resources and broadening control."
BRASSICA PERFORMANCE CROP BY CROP
Fred Tyler says: "Years ago I felt that broccoli could take a large part of the market, and now it even challenges cauliflower. It's easier for the housewife to prepare, and has a mild flavour which the modern palette prefers."
Nutritionally, he says: "The phytochemical level in broccoli is not as high as in Brussels sprouts, though breeders are working on that."
One area where broccoli stands out, along with cauliflower, is in protecting against prostate cancer tumours, according to a recent North American study.
Our breakdown of brassica crops' relative fortunes in recent years shows cauliflower as perhaps the surprise star performer.
"Demand for them is always good," says Roger Welberry. "The consumer prefers them to cabbage."
Yet it is arguably the toughest of the brassicas to grow, with buyers insisting on blemish-free creamy-white heads. Currently, around 84 per cent of cauliflowers sold in the UK are home-grown, but the low prices being paid recently are likely to mean that some growers may switch from cauliflower to other crops.
Of the major brassicas, cabbage offers the widest range of colours, textures and culinary uses, yet its profile is surprisingly low.
"Cabbage prices have been going downhill," says Roger Welberry. "But the could change if consumers were made aware how good they are for you, and what value for money they represent."
Red cabbage was recently discovered to contain anthocyanins, which can slow and even stop the growth of colonic cancer cells.
- Brussels sprouts
We are now approaching what for many households is the only time in the calendar when sprouts appear on the table.
"Sprout yields have been poor nationally, but the quality has been superb," says Fred Tyler. "Unfortunately, it has a very short season - around 40 per cent is sold in the two weeks around Christmas. Thirty years ago, it ran from July through to May."
British growers not hit too severely by the summer weather have benefited from the fact that few other countries grow Brussels sprouts in any quantity.
VIEWS FROM THE FIELD
- Richard Haacker, crops manager, East of Scotland Growers
"We had the same volume of rain as the rest of the country, which affected yields and quality, though in hilly country there is better natural drainage.
"The resulting unevenness of the crop has increased the cost of harvesting, because instead of going through the crop three times, you have to make six or seven to cut them at the size and weight the supermarkets specify."
"This is becoming more of an issue. We use a lot of Eastern European labour through the SAWS scheme, but peaks times of the season but a big strain on it."
"This year we didn't get the warm winds from the Azores that usually bring in the winged pests. But slugs have been a big problem to keep on top of."
"Higher cereal prices are a threat, as they will affect the rent that farmers charge on their land. Brassicas and other vegetables give a better return, but you have to weigh that against the extra hassle and the risk of losing much of your crop in the field."
- Andy Johnson, farming manager, Riverford Organic Vegetables, Devon
"The summer weather gave us problems. Things germinated and grew slowly in the cold ground, and got rain-lashed. There was quite a delay in planting and harvesting. But a bright mild autumn has helped them catch up."
"Brassicas are seen as healthy items and people make the link between healthy and organic. That said, growers will only switch if they see the demand is already there. For us, everything is in place to expand. The big unknown is the wider economy. A downturn and people may no longer want to trade up to organic crops, though the price gap is narrowing."
"Caterpillars can be a problem, though they can be treated with the bacterium Bacillus thuringensis."
"We've mechanised to a point, with steerage hoes, brush-weeders and burners, though we still harvest by hand. Greater scale and more uniform varieties will help. But growing 25 different crops on 400 acres isn't like growing 2,000 acres of broccoli - there's a limit to how much you can do."
- Roger Welberry, chairman, Holme Farm Foods, Lincolnshire
"We lost about 10 per cent of the crop, and the remainder was quite stunted - they didn't come away like they should have, so tonnage is well down. But a shortage should mean getting a little more money for them this year."
"It's the only way to keep costs down. You can't afford to hand-pick any more - we've been using machines for several years. You still need people to grade the crop, though even that can be automated to an extent.
"Now we have also introduced our own trimming machine, we can pick sprouts in the morning, trim them in the afternoon and have them in the shops the next day. Whereas sprouts from Holland take three days to reach the shelves.
"But without money to invest, the sector can't look to the future."