The start of the 2007 season saw a protected crops sector enjoying reasonably favourable market conditions but facing considerable uncertainty in the areas of labour supply and the threat of retrospective permission for polytunnels.
One of the surprise success stories in UK horticulture in recent years has been the rise in production of berry fruit, particularly strawberries. According to British Summer Fruits (BSF), demand for home-grown berries has been growing for 12 years and now outstrips supply for much of the year.
While strawberries and other soft fruit are still principally field-grown crops in the UK, around 194ha of fruit are produced in glasshouses, allowing the season to be extended considerably.
This raises a question of definition. Though not traditionally thought of as “protected edibles”, soft fruit is now a major part of the sector, broadly defined. GreenGene International consultant Professor Geoffrey Dixon says: “I think now you definitiely would include crops grown under plastic, including fruit, which is now a substantial industry. But in Holland they wouldn’t — it’s not a proper protected crop there unless it’s grown under glass. Like most of horticulture, your definition is as broad as you like.”
Testament to the industry’s increasing productivity is the fact that, while the total area in production fell last year by nine per cent, the value of production rose by more than six per cent to £257m.
The fortunes of fruit growers contrast with those of the salad sector, historically a substantial industry in south-east England but which has been retrenching for a number of years, and now depends to a large extent on speciality crops.
The British Tomato Growers’ Association (BTGA) reckons half the current area of glasshouse tomato production is taken up with speciality types, mostly vine tomatoes. The vagaries of the British summer mean that nearly all UK tomato, pepper and aubergine production is done under glass.
Flavourfresh managing director Mick Fradsham says: “The tomato industry in Britain has contracted so much in recent years, it can’t really get any smaller.”
But while the area given over to tomatoes and cucumbers has contracted markedly, more speciality crops such as sweet peppers have fared better. According to grower Gary Taylor, despite DEFRA figures (see graph 1, p26), the area now given over to peppers nationally is closer to 90ha.
Horticulture has always relied to some extent on seasonal labour, and as supply has dried up locally, the growing number of international migrant workers has largely filled the gap. But recent changes to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), which hitherto provided growers with a steady and reliable supply of seasonal labour, have caused some alarm.
NFU regional horticulture board chairman Anthony Snell says: “Reducing the SAWS will have a huge impact, and all growers are extremely concerned about what it will mean in the latter half of this year.”
By next year, all SAWS candidates must come from new EU states Romania and Bulgaria — nations that have so far shown a preference for working in southern Europe. SAWS will be phased out entirely in 2010.
Meanwhile, higher rates set by the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) seem only to add to managers’ cost worries, without luring back local workers. Snell says: “The AWB continues to raise wages at the lower end, yet the power of the supermarkets keeps down market prices.”
And a strong pound has boosted imports of fruit and vegetables generally, with “commodity” tomatoes showing particu-larly strong import growth from eastern Europe and north Africa.
In response, many UK nurseries now prolong the growing season by using assimilation lighting, along with thermal screens and carbon-dioxide enrichment within high-tech, computer-managed glass-houses.
Exports of protected crops remain insignificant. Strawberries, for example, accounted for only 3,000 tonnes of exports in 2005, worth around £1m.
But the real boom over the past decade has been in production within polytunnels, which now house around 80 per cent of the UK soft-fruit crop. At around £7,000 to £8,000 per hectare — barely a tenth of the cost of a glasshouse — polytunnels have a clear economic appeal.
However, since their introduction to the UK horticulture industry in 1993, polytunnels have been a regular source of controversy, and lately have faced concerted opposition from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of the Earth, the Ramblers Association and others.
Snell says: “British growers have been able to meet the rising demand for soft fruits because polytunnels have provided them with a quality and consistent crop.”
In what is widely seen as a test case for the industry, the High Court found in December that Waverley Borough Council was entitled to issue soft-fruit grower Hall Hunter with planning enforcement notices, obliging the grower to take down polytunnels. Last month’s announcement by Herefordshire Council that it would require planning permission for all existing and future polytunnels raised concerns further.
According to BSF chairman Laurence Olins, the Hall Hunter case “could affect the future development of one of the UK’s most successful and self-sufficient areas of agriculture. If UK growers are unable to meet the increasing demand for berries, then imported fruit will appear on supermarket shelves during our summer season.”
Significantly, Herefordshire Council now requires an environmental impact assessment when deciding whether to grant planning permission to polytunnels. As with other areas of food production, the protected crops sector is increasingly having to prove its green credentials in order to gain official support.
Being sited close to its market appears to make British protected crop growing “green”, with its lower food miles adding to its generally sparing use of pesticides and other chemicals.
But according to the BTGA: “Our friends at DEFRA suggest it is ‘better’ from an environmental perspective to import tomatoes than to grow them in glasshouses here.” However, it concedes: “Currently, it does take more energy to grow long-season tomato crops in the UK than just to truck them in from Spain.”
In an increasingly crowded world, British growers also score highly for the intensive nature of their growing methods, coaxing five times more crop per hectare from their glasshouses than that achieved by southern European polytunnel growers.
The controlled nature of the growing regime also limits the spread of pathogens and allows for more selective use of pesticides and biological controls, while closed irrigation systems minimise demand on the wider water infrastructure.
Buyers of edible crops also take a greater interest in what chemicals have been used than is the case with ornamental crops, says consultant Robert Jacobson.
Integrated pest management (IPM), which favours using natural predators over chemical controls, is now prevalent in the industry. “We’ve been leading the world in IPM for a number of years,” says Jacobson. “My work is largely in the weak links — new pests or problems arising from growing a crop in a new way. Organic crops may also be vulnerable to pests in a different way from conventionally grown crops. We’re constantly developing things to combat these.”
As a result, broad-spectrum pesticides have all but disappeared from the sector, he says. “But selective agents are a valuable second line of defence, for example, while you wait for a predator species to establish itself,” he adds. “They make life very much easier. You can try to grow without them, but it’s more expensive, which is hard for the market to accept. People want the benefits without paying more.”
Growers using heated glasshouses have seen ups and downs in fuel prices in 2006, which have added considerably to cost worries. Energy-efficient thermal screens are now a regular feature on many sites.
And with the coming summer anticipated to be every bit as warm and dry as last year’s, efficient water use is a definite priority — particularly in the South East of the country, where production is concentrated.
Snell says: “Most growers are abstracting water locally from rivers and aquifers rather than relying on mains. But if the dry weather continues all summer, the Environment Agency is likely to limit abstraction.”
Current research led by the HDC aims to help keep UK growers ahead of the competition. Priorities include reducing production costs, improving product characteristics such as flavour, appearance and shelf life, and finding effective non-chemical alternatives for pest and disease control.
Mick Fradsham, managing director, Flavourfresh, Merseyside Recruitment
“The change in SAWS will have a huge impact on us. We employ around 100 people a year through it — good-quality students. We’re okay for this year but next year will be quite different.
“Without SAWS you don’t have the same control over when workers can come and go. Conventional recruitment agencies haven’t been able to supply us with the same quality of -reliable people.”
“I question whether we still need the Agricultural Wages Board. We already have the national minimum wage and all our permanent staff are paid above that. Our temporary staff over summer earn the basic minimum wage but then they get piecework above that, so no one’s taking home minimum pay.”
“Price isn’t really an issue for us. At the top end of the market, imported crops can’t match the quality, sugar levels and ripeness that we can offer.”
“We don’t have polytunnels, and if they are regulated that’s okay with us. Why should they get away without planning permission when I need it for my glasshouses?”
Gary Taylor, managing director, Valley Grown Nurseries, Essex Recruitment
“The changes to SAWS don’t affect us. It has more implications for the field-grown sector than for protected crops, which are more intensive. We have a salary system, and each of our 10 staff has their own area. They are all local — some have been with us since we started eight years ago. We even have a waiting list of potential recruits.”
Prices and costs
“The prices for peppers, along with cucumbers and other salad crops, are largely governed by the Netherlands, so are out of our hands.
“The main challenge for us cost-wise is energy. We’re reliant on gas to heat our glasshouses and that accounts now for 60 to 70 per cent of our costs. We’ve gone from spending around £85,000 on energy in 1999 to around £500,000 last year. Right now we’re tied into a contract to buy at 60-70p per therm. It would’ve been worse without help from the HDC protected crops panel.”
“We get advice from consultants every two weeks and are quite proactive about introducing predators. We only spray as a last resort, and then only on individual plants.”
Robert Bezemer, director, Jan Bezemer & Son, Cleveland Recruitment
“We have a good base of English staff, which we top up with migrants from eastern Europe. It’s virtually impossible to get people via SAWS, and generally there are fewer people around, though I hear they’re turning people away in the Lee Valley.
“But it’s not work that many English people will do nowadays. I have five children and none of them want to go into the -industry.”
“Cucumbers are virtually the same this season, tomato prices are up a bit. But you can always source the more commodity-type tomatoes from elsewhere. Poland, in particular, supplies more to the UK market now.”
“We’ve had a 4.5MW combined heat and power plant since 1999 which means we’re self-sufficient even though we have a high energy input.”
“There’s a huge amount of red tape we have to go through, covering employment, energy, waste, hygiene, -assured produce and so on. It’s very time-consuming, it’s mentally wearing and in the end it will drive people out of business.”
Tom Salmon, managing director, Hedon Salads, East Yorkshire Recruitment
“We have no problem whatsoever with recruitment. We use an agency sparingly — we prefer to build up long-term relationships with staff. We have our own internal training and development section, which has helped a lot of previously seasonal workers go full-time. They’re made to feel part of the company. And many of them have brothers and sisters back home who come over to work seasonally with us.”
“Last year we were all ready to commit suicide, what with the price of gas. This year we’ve been brought back from the dead, so to speak. The IPE price of gas rose to 132p per therm last year, but fortunately it’s now back down to around 25p per therm, which we can live with.”
Prices and costs
“On prices, it’s looking like a reasonable year so far. But every producer has to look at innovation as much as possible as a way of getting costs down. For example, we’ve started propagating our own plants rather than buying them in. We have our own propagation unit, which has -already paid for itself.”
• Annual value is £250m
• UK tomato production amounts to 75,000 tonnes a year, compared with imports of over 300,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes
• Roughly 2,500 people are employed in tomato production in the UK