A vegetable growing season with long-term consequences

In an industry with long memories, many growers are saying 2018 stands out as the worst they’ve ever known – and the effects are going to be felt well into next year. The unprecedented combination of weather conditions has affected a wide range of field vegetables, writes Spence Gunn.

“My father was born in 1939 and has been farming all his life,” says Produce World agricultural director and NFU horticulture board member Andrew Burgess.

“He remembers the spring of 1947 and the summer of ’76 but reckons this year’s combination of the wet, cold and very late spring and, since then, the drought and heat makes this the hardest year he’s seen.”

NFU colleague Guy Poskitt, who grows carrots, parsnips and pumpkins at Kellington, North Yorkshire, agrees: “I’ve been growing vegetables for 35 years and this has without a doubt been the hardest summer I’ve ever known. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime season, I hope; an impossibly challenging year.”

In the run-up to onion lifting, grower association British Onions said this year’s crop was likely to be 25% down in both quantity and bulb size. Warm weather in May had allowed crops to catch up after the wet spring had delayed drilling and planting. “But the hot weather in June and July put the crop under considerable stress,” said chairman Tim Elcombe. “Growers worked around the clock to keep crops irrigated. However, there are a number of areas where water abstraction was being limited and growers’ own reserves ran very low. Irrigation was therefore essentially just keeping the plants alive.”

The outlook is harder to quantify for carrots, which are overwintered in the field. “We’re expecting a similar yield reduction to that we’re seeing with onions,” says British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward. “Many growers are saying they’ll have to lift over a greater area early in the season to get the volumes, which may result in the season finishing sooner than usual.”

Most early sowings have recovered, though. “The later sowings never really got going,” says Mr Poskitt. “On our farm some of later ones had no rain for three weeks in July and we were still in drought in early September, by when we’d only had 30mm since May.”

He expects yields for the overwinter crop to be reduced by as much as 30%, with roots smaller and ‘narrower’, although flavour is likely to be ‘as good as usual’. The situation is exacerbated by the price of straw for coverings, which has soared “as everyone fights for fodder.”

Parsnips have suffered in the same way as carrots while pumpkins are smaller than normal, he adds.

It has been a torrid time for brassicas too, says Mr Ward, with less crop to sell over the summer. Growers’ costs are up by 20%, largely due to additional harvesting. In broccoli, for example, the small size of heads meant twice as many had to be picked to make up pack weights.

Some Brussels sprout growers were starting to worry about the condition of their Christmas crops by late summer. One in Yorkshire posted on social media that yields could drop by 75% because plants had not made enough height by the time buttons had started to set.

Mr Ward says stem length was an issue earlier on but appears less of a problem now. Lack of soil moisture still remained a concern for brassicas, however, at the start of autumn planting. “It’s still a bit early to say what the overall picture will be, but any rain we get at this time helps,” he says. “Some plantings are looking OK, others less so; the situation gets worse as you go east and south. Overall, overwinter crops are behind due to planting conditions, but crops are catching up.”

Potato yields and some aspects of quality, such as dry matter content and skin finish, have come under pressure; yields of early crops in the south west were particularly affected. AHDB Potatoes’ first estimate for 2018 plantings, at 119,000ha, is 3% less than last year caused partly by low prices last season as well as the wet spring. The levy body says disease pressure has increased, too, and has estimated overall UK yield at between 6% and 16% down on 2017.

Buyer’s response

NFU horticulture and potatoes adviser Lee Abbey says the impact of the weather on growers’ ability to meet their contracts illustrates why the organisation has long campaigned to improve supply chain relationships, with four supermarkets representing more than half of the fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain now signed up to its ‘Fruit & Veg Pledge’.

“The extreme weather events this year have been out of growers’ control and it would take the most stonehearted buyer not to recognise that,” he says. “Growers have been working all hours to manage crops as best they can and should be applauded, not penalised.”

Most potato packers, processors and retailers are reviewing specifications, he adds. “There is a recognition that all parts of the supply chain need to pull together to make the most of a diminished crop – this weather has affected growers across the northern hemisphere, so there is no spare crop elsewhere.

“We have spoken to major supermarkets about the difficulties vegetable growers have had and most have responded with a range of measures including changes to specifications and to promotions that take account of the impacts on quality or volumes available.

“Some buyers have agreed price increases which is what we’d expect in extreme conditions like these. Retailers have moved to where we feel they should be, though in some cases we’d have liked to have seen a much quicker response. But the reality is, everyone has been a loser this year so it’s about sharing the risks along the supply chain.”

Maintaining a good dialogue is now key for growers and their customers, says Mr Abbey. “If there are ongoing impacts we’d expect buyers to continue to be flexible on specifications and on prices.”

The NFU has also been talking to the main banks to ensure they, too, understand the impact of the season on growers’ cash flows and profitability – and says some have recognised the need to take a different approach to short-term borrowings.

Growers have welcomed the steps customers have taken so far. British Carrot Growers Association chairman Rodger Hobson says: “There is no chance of a quick return to business as usual. The impact of the 2018 growing season will be felt for the next nine months. Volumes are significantly down, and production costs have escalated. For an industry where margins are notoriously slim, this represents a serious threat to grower incomes and longer-term viability.”

Mr Hobson singled out Asda for the changes it has made to specifications for both whole-head and prepared carrots to ensure that the bulk of this year’s crop makes it to the shelf. “Such changes enable growers to take their minds off whether or not a supermarket will buy their carrots and allow them to focus on delivering the crop,” he says. “Support from both retailers and customers is vital if UK growers are to survive the commercial difficulties caused by this summer.”

Vegetable growers have been forced into consolidation in a market that now operates on forward priced tendering with supply and demand on a three-year timescale, points out Mr Burgess. “Tenders are won on large volumes at very thin margins based on the assumption that everything goes well,” he says. “When a year like this occurs, it is imperative that retailers support the growers who supply them.”

With extra costs incurred for irrigation and yields forecast to be down, he says there’s ‘a real danger’ that some growers won’t be able to afford to plant all of their crops next season if this support is not forthcoming.

Longer term lessons

Mr Poskitt is among those who feel this season holds lessons for the industry in the longer term. “The biggest concern that has hit home to me is the margins in vegetables are so low, none of us have any fat left for a disaster like this,” he says. “Hopefully, the reality check is an opportunity to realign the market to more realistic prices.”

Mr Abbey says the potato sector can learn from this year, too. “Much of the crop is grown under contract at a price based on cost of production, but that is often calculated on an average over several years, so it masks the costs associated with an extraordinary season like this one,” he says.

“In an extreme year, growers need some flexibility in such contracts, so the price next year reflects what’s happened. It would only take two difficult years in a row and some will be no longer be growing potatoes; that is a point we have been stressing when talking to packers, processors and retailers.”

In the long term the industry and its customers need to be more mindful of how the whole supply chain depends on the weather, says Mr Ward, and the likelihood of more extreme conditions in future.

“Growers invest heavily in land, machinery and planting so clearly we all want certainty,” he says. “But sitting down at the end of August to programme crops and predicting when you will be planting and harvesting, and what the yield will be, is getting much harder.”