The very dry March and the warm start to April this year are the kind weather that has helped salad growers get off to an early start. These conditions have made planting lettuce crops relatively straightforward. They have also helped with drillings of baby-leaf salad crops, especially spinach, which was being cut a week earlier than in most seasons.
There has been considerable pressure on irrigation, with some growers having to use valuable water resources earlier than normal. All this reminds us of the old saying: "Easy to grow, difficult to sell."
One company that would probably go along with this sentiment is Shropshire-based salad producer PDM. Philip and Liz Maddocks produce whole-head lettuce, spinach, chard and wild rocket. Their main concern is the rising costs of all their input, while returns remain relatively static. Philip cites the rising cost of fuel, which he estimates could add up to an additional £100,000. "Cardboard has gone up by 40 per cent over the past 18 months," he adds. "These increases, coupled with the rising cost of fertiliser, are having a significant effect on the profitability of the business.
"Profitability is not helped by the fact that some multiples seem to be more concerned about increasing their own margins rather than looking after the grower's interest. In some cases the supermarket margin can be as high as 100 per cent. If they were prepared to sell for a more realistic margin, they and the grower would sell more lettuce, benefiting the multiple and the grower."
High hopes for barbecue summer
Hopefully, April's good weather will continue and at long last we might get a barbecue summer. This is certainly the view of John Allen, chairman of the British Leafy Salads Association (BLSA). Mustard Communications has been involved in promotional activities and, in particular, in answering any "food scare" incidents.
Allen says Mustard Communications has done an excellent job and the salad industry has prospered as a result of its work. He was disappointed when members declined to support a new campaign for the 2011 season. Despite an excellent presentation at the BLSA conference in November, the campaign has not been supported. Allen feels that this is very much a retrograde step and hopes for a change of heart from members in 2012.
The UK acreage of both baby-leaf and whole-head salads has altered very little over the past couple of years. The one exception is spinach, which has increased acreage. The rise in the popularity of Romaine, at the expense of Iceberg, seems to be on hold right now. The reason for this appears to be price. Perhaps, in these times of relative austerity, an Iceberg lettuce, sweet gem or mini-cos is perceived as being better value than a whole head Romaine.
Another factor that may contribute to the lack of whole-head lettuce sales is renewed public interest in bagged salads. Suppliers of these products have been very clever, in as much as the quantity of salad leaves in the bags has sometimes been reduced, which has enabled them to lower the selling price, making it appear a more attractive alternative to the more expensive whole-head product.
The demand for organically-produced salads remains relatively static. Growers who specialise in organic produce are concerned that the multiples want to pay the same price for an organic lettuce as they do for a conventionally-grown one, whereas it costs more to produce a crop in an organic system.
A market that has seen significant growth is in supplying the catering industry. The expansion in the ready-made sandwich market has been dramatic - from petrol stations and corner shops to supermarkets and motorway service stations. This trend has certainly encouraged the increased production of baby-leaf products such as wild rocket and spinach. This market has also helped to encourage the development of micro-leaf salads, which are particularly useful in sandwich making.
There are a number of technical challenges facing the industry and perhaps the greatest of these is weed control. The withdrawal of propachlor last year meant that the grower no longer had anything in the chemical armoury that could control composite weeds mayweed and groundsel.
Although there are herbicides in the pipeline that will offer some control of these weeds, according to Cathy Knott, an independent consultant, it will be some time before they become available to growers.
As a result of the lack of suitable herbicides, the use of mechanical hoeing has increased in popularity. As these mechanical hoes - such as the Garford Robocrop2 - have become more sophisticated, they have found favour with a number of growers. But however well these mechanical hoes perform, they work best in dry soil conditions. As Langmead Farms farm director David Moore comments: "A couple of weeks of rainy weather when conditions for the hoe are unsuitable and the weeds can soon overtake the crop."
Last season was a relatively quiet year for lettuce aphids. However, infestations of the lettuce currant aphid, Nasonovia Ribisnigra, can be devastating, especially if they occur during the late summer and autumn when the effect of seed dressings have worn off. Although some producers are growing varieties of lettuce that have single-gene resistance to the lettuce currant aphid, the greater majority of growers are still relying on having the seed treated with Conquest or Gaucho.
While these products seem to be very effective, as Liz Johnson of G's points out, we have not seen a really bad year with aphid to test the effectiveness of Conquest, although most reports appear to find the product extremely effective.
With regard to disease control, early signs in both lettuce and rocket indicate that downy mildew has been more prevalent in some early crops than in previous years - especially in fleece-covered crops where retained moisture in combination with higher temperatures has encouraged mildew. Hopefully, uncovering the crop and the effect of the sun and drying winds should clear the problem up without having to resort to any chemical treatment.
Due to unseasonably good weather, most salad products will be available up to a fortnight earlier than they would have been in most years. Very often at the beginning of the English season, it is a challenge to match the first home-produced crops with those that have been imported from southern Europe. This will not be the case this year.
Hopefully, this will give the buying public an opportunity to purchase home-grown produce, and especially locally-grown produce. However, many growers believe that if they do not get the quality of their product - and more particularly the price - absolutely right, the multiples will buy wherever they can get the best deal.
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE MICRO-LEAF SALAD TREND
One company that has taken advantage of the trend for micro-leaf salad crops is Westland Nurseries, based at Offenham, near Evesham.
Owner Martin Boers has developed a highly innovative system for producing micro-leaf salad crops that are grown on capillary matting in a dedicated state-of-the-art, climate-controlled glasshouse.
No pesticides are used in the production of these micro-leaves and both the sowing and harvesting operations are fully automated.
The company supplies a wide range of products suitable for use by catering companies in addition to supplying a number of restaurants. Westland offers a wide range of products that includes such specialities as red amaranth and pea shoots.
A recent introduction from the company has been that of edible flowers for use in salad mixtures. A particularly innovative addition to the range has been the revival of the very ancient vegetable, samphire.
This coastal plant has frequently been described as "the poor man's asparagus". Although in recent years it has largely fallen out of favour, it is now seeing something of a revival, especially in high-class eating establishments where it is used as an accompaniment to fish dishes.
Both the edible flowers and samphire are being supplied by Westland Nurseries to Waitrose stores.