Cucumbers -efficiency focus more important than ever

Reducing overheads and improving practice are key for growers chasing decent returns, says Sophie Barnett.

Thanet Earth's technical manager Robert James says year round growing requires significant investment in lighting - image: Thanet Earth
Thanet Earth's technical manager Robert James says year round growing requires significant investment in lighting - image: Thanet Earth

Bad grower returns remain the main gripe for cucumber growers as they battle to successfully streamline their businesses for maximum profit. Rising input costs do little to win sympathy from supermarkets and many growers' returns have remained static for five years while the product's supermarket price has risen.

Small changes in practice or investments to increase overall efficiency and reduce overheads seem more vital than ever to ensure a viable future for businesses.

Halsham Salads director Les Deeley, who is based near Hull, says many growers he knows, including himself, have consistently received 28p per cucumber for the past five years and yet they are now sold for 90p in the supermarkets.

"I don't know how they expect growers to cope. Prices have gone up for energy, labour - everything basically - and yet the return from supermarkets remains the same," he says.

In the early part of the year, his gas bill for heating the glasshouses easily hits £3,000 daily. "If this continues, we cannot stay in business. I don't know where the supermarkets are coming from. They are taking all the profit margins - they are just too powerful. The percentage they take is just too great and yet no-one does anything about it."

Deeley believes the Government does too little to help horticulture growers and despite the imminent introduction of a supermarket ombudsman, he is pessimistic. "I have been doing this for 44 years now and it is harder than it's ever been. I'm afraid I have seen this too many times now and as much as I hope this ombudsman has teeth, I don't think it will."

He says many growers he knows made a loss the year before last and last year they made a small profit. But many are afraid to tell the truth.

"When we do that (make profit) we have to plough everything back into the business for investments for the future," he says. "If I had not put in thermal screens, for example, I would be out of business. If we can't invest, the industry will shrink.

"Banks will not invest. They are looking for returns and as we are not making enough returns they say it is not enough and so won't lend to us. I've not given myself a pay increase in five years."

UK Salads technical manager Mark Lever explains that returns are still very dependent on the customers and the marketplace. He adds: "It depends on the customers. For us, some of our supermarket customers have been a pleasure to work with. We always want a bit more - of course we do - but as long as we are making a fair living, that's all we ask. Growers work hard and it has got to be reflected in the prices back to the grower."

UK Salads expects its first crop to hit the shops in mid February, after planting in early January. It will not divulge its price per cucumber but says it works hard to increase yield where it can year on year. Lever also stresses that the business never has a problem selling its English crop. "If we could put up more glass we wouldn't have a problem selling the extra we produced."

He says a combined heat and power (CHP) system is vital, but "fine-tuning" practices and making investments are key. Last year UK Salads managed to add more lines in some of the blocks, increasing the number of plants grown. It has also used its coir for the second year, but will not use it for a third.

Thanet Earth's technical manager Robert James is also reluctant to disclose his company's returns - "but suffice to say we have to grow and pack as efficiently as possible".

Light levels

Light levels were low last year and have been low in the beginning of 2011, but many growers are still improving production year on year.

Deeley says Halsham Salads managed a "fairly good yield" despite low light, partly due to a switch from the 'Proloog' variety to 'Aviance'.

One grower beating the light levels is Kent-based Thanet Earth. It was the first grower in the UK to harvest cucumbers in 2011, as in 2010. A&A Growers, which owns and operates the cucumber greenhouse at the Kent site, picked its first fruits on 24 January. James says it is has been quite dull so far this year but the crucial time for light is the next few weeks. At peak production, Thanet Earth's weekly cucumber harvest exceeds 700,000 fruits.

James says: "Overall, we had around five per cent less light last year due to a particularly dull January and December. However, the summer was good with strong light levels in August and September. This combined with lessons from our first year of production meant that our volumes were up on the previous season."

Thanet planted on 15 December and put a lot of its success down to the large open skies at the site, its high wire growing techniques and warmth from CHP units. It grows in rockwool, for the control it gives on high wires.

Last year, Thanet Earth saw profits almost halved after a run of bad luck (HW, 17 September 2010). Fresca Group chairman Christopher Mack, whose organisation part runs the complex, says: "It has required our people to be resourceful and committed."

All-year-round production

After a hugely successful project organised and managed by the Cucumber Growers' Association (CGA) and funded by the Horticultural Development Company, one way that growers hoped to increase profits was with all-year-round production.

The main focus was on using supplementary lighting when natural light was limited. CGA press officer and horticultural consultant Dr Rob Jacobson says: "At the time, the average UK production was about 120 cucumbers per square metre, with the best production being about 160 cucumbers per square metre. We blew those figures out of the water with 315 cucumbers per square metre in the first year.

"Then energy prices started to rocket and we had to change the strategy to reduce inputs. We still achieved more than 290 cucumbers per square metre but with market prices static it only made economic sense if growers already had CHP units. Furthermore, growers were wary of making the initial investment at those market prices."

Despite the plans being shelved, UK growers have that knowledge and can draw on it should the balance between energy prices and market prices change.

Lever says all-year production is not viable due to high energy costs. UK Salads needs the winter lull of six to seven weeks from finishing picking in early November to clear glasshouses and undertake any repairs or servicing that may be required.

James adds: "To produce cucumbers year-round we would need to invest in lighting. This is a significant capital cost and the in the current climate the economics just do not stack up. We already have a very long production season and are only out of production for eight to nine weeks."

Pests and diseases

The loss of chlorothalonil products such as Repulse is set to leave a dent in the armoury of cucumber growers tackling mildew and Botrytis when they are withdrawn on 30 September.

CGA technical officer Derek Hargreaves says: "The manufacturers are no longer making it in the single formulation to reduce the risk of resistance, but the mixtures are not approved for cucumber growers. We can apply for specific off-label approval if another country in Europe has approved its use, but sadly the wheels at the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) run slowly."

He adds that growers will still have Switch for Mycosphaerella control but he is still hopeful they will get Signum for cucumbers, although they have been trying to get CRD approval for the past three years.

"I'm still hoping we can get Floramite approved for controlling red spider mite on cucumbers," he says. "It's kind to predators, but I've come up against the re-entry times. The problem we always have is that the UK follows things to the letter while the rest of the EU doesn't. Our growers are always prevented from using chemicals while other EU countries do, and then their products are sold here."

He says it still looks like a struggle because it seems unlikely that Certis, which owns the rights, or anyone else would carry out expensive trials required to get it approved.

James says of the situation at Thanet: "Our main pests are thrips, whitefly and capsid. What is of major concern to the industry is our ability to control outbreaks of powdery mildew because more pesticides are being withdrawn and biological solutions are struggling to get registration."

Growers also get frustrated when biocontrols are registered as pesticides.Despite being a non-chemical spray, Eradicote is classified as a pesticide when the ingredient in it is multodextrin, which is basically potato starch - a product used to thicken sauces.

Looking to the future

Many growers still feel promotions are the key to raising the profile of cucumbers. The CGA still promotes cucumbers annually at events such as the Great Yorkshire Show and the BBC Good Food Show. The aim is to get the public to better appreciate cucumbers and what growers do in the hope that one day growers get a better share in profits.

In the meantime, growers must keep streamlining. Concluding, Hargreaves says: "The best philosophy is we have got to produce more and more for less and less."

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