Fruit growers hear NFU's 'extremely upbeat' vision for industry despite many challenges

The NFU's vision for British horticulture is "extremely upbeat" despite its many ongoing challenges, chief horticulture adviser Hayley Campbell-Gibbons told last week's East Malling Research Top-Fruit Storage Day.

"Increasing production, import displacement and growing profitability are all within reach," she said. "With some significant changes, and the right signals from Government and the European Commission, we can achieve these goals."

NFU campaigning has succeeded in raising food production up the political agenda, she said. Pointing to Tesco's announcement at the NFU Conference in February that it would extend direct relationships to its fresh-produce suppliers, she said: "After two years of lobbying, retailers have responded."

But she conceded: "We haven't hit our targets of 50 per cent self-sufficiency in fruit." Due to a difficult growing season last year, the figure for apples has dropped to 31 per cent, while pears stand at 16 per cent and plums a mere nine per cent."

But despite rising imports and falling exports from an already low base, she claimed there is "huge unexploited potential" to increase UK fruit and vegetable exports. "We shouldn't put all our eggs in the one basket of supplying four or five major retailers in the UK without exploring the global opportunities."

She added that sectors of the UK industry "aren't making the most of what's available" in EU funding, pointing out that in many field-grown crop sectors there are no producer organisations, the main vehicle for EU grants to the sector, while their total number in the UK has declined to just 30.

English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow said: "The potential to grow is considerable but we have to ensure fruit quality is good while keeping costs down through the supply chain, as we are operating in a competitive market."

He added that he expects UK self-sufficiency in apples to return to around 38 per cent this year, but warned of the risk of late frosts due to the season's early start.

Contract issues Changes to the small print

Too many growers lack written contracts with customers, fail to read thoroughly those they have or assume they cannot negotiate over terms, NFU chief legal adviser Nina Winter told the East Malling Research event.

"You need to look beyond the price offered," she said. "Changes to the small print can add value to your business. You can't claim afterwards the contract was unfair - no judge will save you."

A lot of fresh produce "is still traded on a handshake", she added. "A verbal contract is binding, but it is hard to later prove what you agreed to."

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