While some vegetable sectors have suffered over the past decade, root vegetables are weathering the storm better than most. During that time UK field vegetable production shrank from 147,000ha to 123,841ha. But although all sectors have contracted, roots have fared better than brassicas and legumes with an area fall of 10 per cent to 19,537ha against drops of 23 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.
Over the period Defra data for home production marketed shows a fall of 3 per cent for root crops to 928,800 tonnes. The value of home produced root crops marketed over the past four years has risen 17 per cent to £201m, but this is set against a backdrop of escalating input costs for seed, straw, fertilizer and fuel.
It proved a difficult start to the 2010/11 season. The extremely cold and dry spring created establish- ment problems for parsnips. Meanwhile, the well-documented harsh December proved a major challenge resulting in significant losses in unstrawed carrot crops.
According to British Carrot Growers Association (BCGA) chairman Martin Evans, growers were lulled into a false sense of security after 10 years of mild winters and many, he says, were caught out.
However, the shortages caused by the weather did help retain moderately strong prices. With food price inflation a dominant issue, Clause sales manager Mike Steele believes the UK carrot production area may increase slightly this year. "Consumers are switching to vegetables offering greater value for money," he says.
Evans adds that carrot growers are unlikely to be put off by one bad experience because of the nature of their crop. "The seasons overlap for carrots and unlike some other crops you don't tend to get knee jerk reaction from growers. They tend to take a medium term view," he says.
However, Evans does believe that changes will have to be made to help growers adjust to the changing climate. Strawing crops over winter is a massive logistical operation and costs have escalated greatly, he claims. "The industry needs to re-examine and review other options for storage," he says.
Fortunately, some varieties offer partial tolerance to frost. Nickerson Zwaan claims that its frost tolerant Eskimo can make a valuable contribution to reducing carbon emissions in the late strawed period. "By extending the open field season, a large proportion of the extra carbon produced by using straw or polythene can be avoided, slashing overall carbon usage by 56 per cent," says its vegetable seeds specialist John de Soyza.
Another variety claiming good credentials against the cold is Rijk Zwaan's Stanford. Described as a smooth, strong-rooted variety for the pre-pack market, it offers good partial Alternaria resistance. Other interesting newcomers include Clause's Trevor F1, which recently won the BCGA's carrot flavour award.
Although this winter's crop losses for parsnips were less than carrots, Elsoms Seeds crop manager Martin Strickson believes that the exceptional harvesting conditions were probably the worst in living memory.
In the severe weather, unless the crop was strawed, lifting parsnips was not an operational proposition. Growers generally straw a week's supply to carry them over; however, with the freeze lasting three weeks in some areas there were issues.
In general, Evans maintains that the quality of root crops going into autumn was superb, the best it has been in several years with high pack out. "Taking into account December, it is now good to average," he says. "Prices have remained fairly static with an element of nervousness in the market. With the second half of the winter proving fairly mild, even leeks and brassicas have grown on and recovered."
Research targets waste
The root sector is well supported by the Horticulture Development Company-funded research projects targeting key priorities such as reducing carrot cavity spot, blemishes on parsnips and wastage.
With stringent supermarket quality requirements, an estimated 40 per cent of harvested carrots and parsnips are rejected. The Food and Environment Research Agency is leading a HortLink Feasibility Project that is exploring waste reduction and shelf life extension.
Current cavity spot control strategies are limited by poor understanding of Pythium violae activity in the soil. Exploring two sustainable approaches, University of Warwick scientists have found the pathogen enjoys a broad host range, so even long-rotations out of carrots are unlikely to prove successful. This research has shown the choice of crop planted before a carrot crop does not seem to influence total yield. More encouragingly, companion planting gave very good control, but yield loss was unacceptably high necessitating further work.
Cavity spot in strawed crops during winter poses a particular problem. In a further University of Warwick-based project, polymerase chain reaction testing for P. Violae has shown promise for forecasting disease incidence. However researchers believe that soil water relations are the way for- ward, with the potential to use irrigation as a tool for control.
In organic carrots crops crown rot remains a sporadic problem. In a bad year it can cause yield losses of £500,000. Worryingly for growers, the option to treat with copper will be lost under EU directive 91/417. Previous attempts to identify the organism have proved inconclusive and the Scottish Agricultural College has now grasped the baton.
In parsnip crops root blemishes are a major concern and the target of an STC project. Having researched the causes, relative importance and roles of different pathogens, the project focus will shift to evaluating chemical, biological and cultural techniques for effective control.
Current breeding efforts at Elsoms Seeds in Spalding are concentrated on disease resistance in a bid to reduce crop losses caused by blemishes, such as orange and black canker. "With relatively little known about the causes of disease symptoms on parsnips, we are looking to identify and characterise the pathogens involved," says Elsoms' Aaron Abbott.
"So far the disease testing work is proving successful with reliable and reproducible data obtained," he says. "The next challenge is to develop tests for each individual pathogen. One way to do this is by using genetic markers linked to the disease symptoms observed. Our laboratory staff are employing several methods to identify markers within the parsnip genome to select material which is more disease resistant."
Proportion of harvested carrots and parsnips rejected by supermarkets - 40%
Products and trends
Some 30 carrot variants can be found in UK shops, putting the UK industry ten years ahead of Europe.
UK consumers on average eat carrot once every 12 days. Kantar Worldpanel consumer spend figures for the 52 weeks ending 20 March show total UK spend on root vegetables was £457m, a fall of 2.1 per cent from the previous 52 weeks.
Fresh carrots, with 56 per cent of the spend, accounted for £256m. Parsnips, with a 14.1 per cent share, totalled £56m. The total volume of roots was relatively static at 466 million kg.
Before the recession, organic carrots peaked at five per cent of total UK carrot sales, but have now shrunk back to three per cent.
Scotland produces 65 per cent of the UK's organic carrots. Last month TIO, the country's largest producer of organic root vegetables, welcomed the launch of Scotland's Organic Action Plan, which promises to identify and promote the advantages of organic farming.
Chantenay is another important niche sector. Having revived the UK Chantenay market in 1990, Freshgro now supplies 90 per cent of this variety, accounting for 10 per cent by value of the total UK carrot market. The company has just launched the nation's first Chantenay snack packs.
With the UK dried-fruit market worth £35m a year, it seems these healthy convenience snacks have an exciting future.
Meanwhile, baby parsnips - reminiscent of Chantenays - have also survived the recession. Launched in 2007 and available in Sainsbury's stores, this novel product offers convenience and from a small start sales continue to move in the right direction.
European markets are starting to wake up to parsnips, which have traditionally been a UK product. UK-based breeding programmes by Tozer and Elsoms have therefore spawned a stream of promising new hybrids including Palace and Picador.
Traditionally rough skinned, dirty and knobbly on the outside, root vegetables were often viewed as cheap winter fillers. But they have a variety of flavours and textures and offer many health benefits - attributes on which the BCGA and others are keen to capitalise.
"An 80g serving of cooked carrot - just half a medium-sized carrot - contains more than twice the recommended daily amount of vitamin A equivalent needed by adults," says Lucy Hancock of Mustard Communications. "It really couldn't be easier to eat yourself healthier with carrots."
As of November, the BCGA-sponsored Captain Carrot Theatre Group had visited 621 schools taking its message to 158,288 children. To boost communications to adults, TV doctor Christian Jessen recently joined the BCGA's campaign as Dr Carrot, a reincarnation of the Ministry of Food's cartoon character promoting healthy eating during Second World War rationing. Jessen says Dr Carrot's advice is as relevant in 2011 as it was in the 1940s. The campaign emphasises carrots' incredible value for money - with a single carrot costing as little as 8p.
"People often think of carrots as a commodity and forget that they are packed with vitamin A," says Hancock. "Our campaign peaks in June/July with the arrival of the new season crop. With UK carrots available 11 months of the year, a lot of people are unaware of the seasonality. New season carrots tend to be more slender, tender and delicate in flavour - attributes the campaign is keen to get across."