Exotic edibles - growers expand their horizons

The sun-loving kiwis should have all perished. Last winter in Kent, after all, was one of the worst for years. But they did not, which bodes well not only for Worldwide Fruit, which is trialling the crop, but like-minded growers turning their hand to exotic fruits and vegetables.

Magenta melons...exotic crop - image: Mack Multiples
Magenta melons...exotic crop - image: Mack Multiples

That list of produce grows longer by the year as more Brits test, and in some cases roll out, commercial production of such fare as melons, apricots, okra and chillies. Worldwide Fruit commercial director Tony Harding reckons several factors lure growers to go exotic.

"It's a mixture of things but climate change is not necessarily a primary driver," he muses. "Supermarket preference to buy British is very important, and while we have an eye on climate change, agronomically things have moved on dramatically in recent years. We can now produce crops once seen as too marginal for production."

Top of the range

One hectare of kiwi - three different varieties including an early-maturing one from Italy - went into the ground last year.

Up went top-of-the-range metal structures from Italy to train the vines up and across the wires. Most, he insists, are growing well and nearly all survived the bitingly cold winter. Worldwide Fruit hopes to harvest its first crop in 2013.

"This is a commercial trial and we have had a lot of interest, with one retailer wanting exclusivity if it's successful. We want to diversify and this is not too dissimilar to strawberry tabletop production. If growers can get volumes up and quality standards the same as imports it will give industry more confidence to push innovative technology and try maverick crops."

Supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer, he says, are "innovation hungry" and growers have to push boundaries. If Harding is right, kiwis could go the same way as blueberry and apricot, which have seen sales spike in recent years. Winning over supermarkets is crucial, of course, as acreages depend on retailer support. But at the moment, "so far, so good", he says.

Half of Worldwide Fruit is owned by UK-based apple and pear growers and it has an "obligation to look at diversification options for them". Chris Atkinson, head of science at East Malling Research, also sees how once-niche products have pin-sharp potency on more central, mainstream issues such as food security and carbon footprints.

"Climate change can be seen as a great opportunity rather than a great threat," he says. "We need to think not only of what we won't be able to grow but what we can grow to replace them. Countries are under more pressure to produce the same outputs but with less water and all it takes is a spike in oil prices for the consequences to be terrifying (see 'food security' box).

"Looked at like that, growers trialling exotic crops like melons in Kent or apricots on the Isle of Wight are an important initiative. But it's not always exotic foods - we need to think of staples. Wheat and meat are big on greenhouse gases. Can we grow lentils and beans commercially as alternative sources of protein? The opportunities are there and those who get in early will make money."

Economically viable

Mack Multiples melon technologist James Cackett agrees: "Changing climate and technology make it possible and economically viable to grow more ambitious crops (see 'melons' box). In some cases full commercial viability is some way off, but the skills of growers, research institutes and commercial experts are a winning formula - at Mack Multiples, at least."

East Malling Research commercial farm manager Graham Caspell worked with Mack Multiples on the trials of Cantaloupe, Charentais and Piel de Sapo melons, which were an "astounding success". Size, sugar levels and yields were good and plants bore up to nine melons instead of the more usual five to six. But money is still tight for exotics and Caspell may look at using second-hand strawberry tunnels to squeeze out efficiencies.

For East Malling there is still plenty to do, he says, pointing at the work of Dr Mark Else on water waste. This will no doubt help Salvatore Genovese who recently grew Bhut Jolokia, the world's hottest commercially-grown chilli pepper, for sale in Britain. The vegetable, produced for Finlays Fresh Produce, originated in India, was grown in Bedfordshire and is now in Tesco.

Edible flowers

AG Thames, meanwhile, is following up success with apricots by investing in trials of Sweet Sensation pear. All these exotics take time to finesse and sometimes you cannot. Stubbins commercial director Keith Saddler trialled okra and edible flowers last year. Glass is finite, space at a premium and it was not to be.

He says: "The okra trial was interesting, a bit quirky. We had a few problems with maturing plants, which ebbed and flowed from start to flowering, but it ate well and Asda was happy. It was a small trial, went into two or three stores that were demographically right, and though the return meant it wasn't viable, you have to experiment."

More growers have gone from experimenting to full-scale production and form their own demographic type, says Zeenat Anjari, business development manager for New Covent Garden Market. "They tend to be in their 30s and 40s, forward thinking, looking for a challenge and keen to seize opportunities."

Anjari, whose NFU-managed job is to coax more growers to supply wholesale markets, helps them do this by giving them tours of New Spitalfields and New Covent Garden markets to point out potential new crops. Tuscan black cabbage and long aubergine, for example, are the kind of "cheffy" side dishes that are proving profitable on the British farm.

Nick Gilford, commercial director at Frederick Hiam, took a tour a few seasons ago and now sells pallets of the cabbage. Watts Farm partner Joe Cottingham - a Horticulture Week grower of the year - sells okra and baby aubergine, while David Mwanaka grows green mustard, pumpkin leaves and white sweetcorn not in his native Zimbabwe but outside London.

In one respect, Anjari insists, growers are identical to supermarkets and growing exotic fruit and vegetables helps them achieve a twin goal. Both want "a USP that is colourful, fantastic and eye-catching", she explains.

Melons

James Cackett, melon technologist at Mack Multiples, explains why his company is putting its faith in melons.

What's the story?

"We have 4.5ha of melons in Staffordshire and two 115m tunnels at East Malling Research (EMR) in Kent. Last year's watermelon trial was so successful we increased volumes this year and have successfully tested melons from all over the world, including some that usually require more heat."

Why grow them?

"We've been keen to explore this further, as the time of year when the UK crop ripens is when the quality of produce from Spain can tend to fall. To grow melons in the UK is another diversity option while retailers have an ever-growing demand for the UK flag in their aisles."

Who are your customers?

"Melons grown at EMR are destined for Sainsbury's and our previous trials have been for Marks & Spencer. We're not at full commercial viability yet, but combining the skills of growers with research institutes and technical and commercial experts is proving a winning formula."

Any drawbacks - pests, diseases, lack of demand?

"Consumer demand is definitely there. Whether we can attach price premium to UK provenance is more questionable. Production cost is high and we're still learning which pests and diseases might be a problem."

Food security

It has happened - but will it happen again and, if so, where? Soaring food prices triggered riots from Mexico to India three years ago. In Cameroon, a taxi drivers' strike over fuel prices transformed into a protest about food prices, leaving around 20 people dead.

"This is a serious security issue," the International Food Policy Research Institute said. Billions of people are buying more food, China and India now have the cash to import more and spikes in oil prices push up fertiliser and transportation costs. Then there is climate change, disrupting harvests and leading to dystopian fears the world might run short of food.

Speculators play on this, pouring billions into commodities, pushing up prices. Wheat leapt 25 per cent in one day after Kazakhstan said it aimed to restrict exports of its huge wheat crop to prevent its people going hungry in 2008.

East Malling Research head of science Chris Atkinson says: "We are not self-sufficient in fruit and places we import from such as Spain are under more pressure to produce the same levels of output with fewer natural resources. We can't wait for crises to happen.

"Agronomy needs to explore new opportunities but there must be commercial advantage. Growing exotic produce is one way of approaching this problem. We already produce UK wine maps."


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