Just before Christmas, the British Leafy Salads Association (BLSA) pulled off a major coup by winning EU money to promote salads to consumers. The money is intended to help counter the damage caused by the E. coli outbreak last year. Heading up the bid was John Allan. In addition to being chairman of the BLSA, he is a leading spinach grower and a dynamic lobbyist for the industry.
Allan has been working in the industry since leaving agricultural college 27 years ago. "Originally I wanted to go into arable farming, but I was offered a job with salads and I enjoyed it," he says.
He lives in Nottinghamshire, where he is a director of Emmett, which grows almost 250ha of spinach leaves. "We sell bagged spinach. I spend most of my day field-walking, doing agronomy and running our staff - at peak season we have around 30 employees."
In addition, he does a lot of work for the BLSA - chairing meetings, pooling research, organising campaigns and representing the industry to the Government and the Horticultural Development Company. "I have been on the BLSA's research and development committee for the past 15 years, so three years ago I felt I was ready to do a stint as chairman," he says.
The new campaign is being funded by around £120,000 of European money, which is being matched by the BLSA. A total of £280,000 will be used for a three-year campaign to boost sales of leafy salads.
"Getting the money took a lot of work," says Allan. "We created a strategy to show how the campaign would work. This resulted in a presentation to Defra. We also had to be careful to make it generic - we are not allowed to use the money to promote British produce at the expense of other EU countries." He suggests that, in the spinach sector at least, sales have largely recovered from effect of the E. coli scare.
The Salad Days campaign, to be led by PR company Ceres, will start in May, at a time when the first British leaf salads start to come into the shops. Ceres director Kathryn Race explains: "Research has shown that young people between 28 and 34 currently buy salad leaves around 17 times a year. The national average is 21. If we bring them up to the average figure, retail sales of salad will rise by £21m."
The initial approach will be educational. "We will show such things as how to use salads in sandwiches without them going limp," says Race. The campaign will also employ an expert "flavourist", he adds. "People don't understand that iceberg, endive and chicory all taste very different. A flavourist will be able to suggest ways of pairing up salads with various types of meat or fish."
The campaign will use social media, with competitions on Twitter and Facebook. "We want to capture an audience and create a conversation," Race explains. There will also be a new website for consumers that will include exciting recipes for salad leaves.
Allan is very enthusiastic about plans to provide 200 schools with growing kits, so children can grow their own spinach or lettuce. This initiative will be linked the national curriculum. "We need to tell the story about how good it is, how it grows and what we're doing for the environment," he says.
Allan will also have to deal with other challenges facing the industry. "There is a massive debate about the levels of nitrates in the leaf. Levels are changing and Britain can't derogate from the EU rulings. We are having to be extra careful."
In addition, there are concerns about pesticides. Because of what he describes as the "reducing armoury", Allan believes that growers will increasingly have to rely on biological and cultural controls.
He is also closely involved in discussions about the use of peat. At present, there is no alternative to peat, when it comes to growing whole-head lettuce. "We are looking for an alternative, but we're also lobbying the Government to allow us to continue with the present system, at least for the immediate future."
Other long-term challenges include marketing, where Allan says more analysis of sector sales and customer trends is needed, water availability and quality and recruitment and training. He suggests that the industry needs far more technical people and agronomists.
In the meantime, he believes that the market is likely to remain steady. The BLSA is currently preparing for its biennial conference, which takes place in November. Speakers have yet to be confirmed, although Allan is enthusiastic.
"It will be a mixture of current research, ongoing ideas and blue-sky thinking," he says. At a time when so many of the factors on which the industry relies are in a state of change, there is plenty of scope for debate.