Tackling pests and global economy discussed at conference

With no shortage of issues facing the industry, this year’s UK Brassica & Leafy Salads Conference in Peterborough attracted around 300 delegates. With a packed agenda featuring political, technical and commercial presentations, there was something for everyone.

Dr Tina Barsby, CEO of NIAB EMR gave an overview of the organisations history and stressed that it was well placed to increase its work in the field vegetable sector. “We run technical events, but we don’t have the close working relationship that we have in other sectors,” she said. However, NIAB EMR is working hard to address this. It is involved in the new AHDB Horticulture project FV454 looking at lettuce irrigation and has recently opened its new Innovation Hub in the heart of the Fens, featuring laboratories and collaborative space to focus on fresh produce research.

“We are a very technical organisation, but we need to better understand the economics of production,” she added. “Membership is very important to NIAB and about a third of membership subscriptions go into research chosen by the members. Defra and AHDB income now only accounts for around 10 per cent of our turnover.”

An increasing focus of vegetable research is the use of biologicals. Dr Tim Lacey of Bayer CropScience explained that there are currently around 250 biologically active substances registered for crop protection use around the world, with 79 biological actives registered in the EU. “Nearly half the registrations currently pending in Europe are for biologicals,” he added. “The UK is behind the curve in this area.”

Tim explained that one of the greatest potential benefits of biologicals is their role in resistance management, something which is not always highlighted in discussions. “They lead us towards a process where we think less about products and more about broader solutions. Something we call Integrated Crop Solutions at Bayer.”

The successful use of biologicals can require a change in attitude from growers. For example, they generally provide less control in terms of numbers than conventional chemistry, but if used carefully, levels can be sufficient for economic production. “Remember that it’s about population management: keeping pest populations down below the threshold where they might cause damage,” he continued.

Pest damage was also the subject of Rosemary Collier’s presentation, with moths and Silver Y moth, being a particular focus. The large number of Silver Y moths seen at the Euro 2016 football finals in Paris in 2016 failed to appear across the channel, but in other years they have been a significant issue. The other main caterpillar pests of leafy salad crops are Diamond-back moth (which affects brassicas) and turnip moth (cutworm).

She provided an overview of AHDB project FV 440, which is focusing on pest Lepidoptera and their monitoring and control. “Silver Y is a sporadic pest which behaves like migrant birds,” Rosemary explained. “They fly in throughout the summer and there is no evidence that they arrive earlier in one part of the country than another.”

In answer to a question from the floor, Rosemary also said that there had not yet been any evidence of pyrethroid resistance in Silver Y moth. “We’ve been testing the same insecticides and biopesticides and there are differences in susceptibility between Silver Y and Diamond-back moths.”

Variation is a key issue for salad growers and Yara Boubou of Harper Adams University College described her work investigating the origins of infield variation between lettuce plants. “Lettuce is produced from transplants grown from genetically identical seed,” she pointed out. “The target is to harvest it in a single pass with at least 80 per cent harvested. Heads which are over or under sized result in wastage.”

One finding has been that there are clear differences between the size of transplants on the outside and inside of the tray. Although this has not been an area she has pursued, she said that some growers are already using this information to see how they can improve planting consistency. “A two gram difference in size at this early stage became a ten gram difference after 14 days, at which point you can see differences in the field,” Yara explained.

Another key issue was placement of transplants, with modules planted on their side, below or above the soil surface all showing significant numbers of misshapen heads and reduced head weights once trimmed.

Downy mildew is one of the key diseases of spinach and while recent developments in breeding have made resistance genes available to growers, the many different combinations add complexity. Sierra Hartney is a Plant Pathologist with Sakata Seed America. She provided an overview of the genetic basis of downy mildew resistance and explained how it can be managed to best effect.

The joint brassica and salad session in the afternoon focused on commercial factors and was chaired by Brassica Growers Association chairman Matthew Rawson, who described himself as “a part time sprout grower from the East Riding of Yorkshire.” He oversaw the most entertaining session, including a whirlwind tour of the current world economic and political situation by Justin Urquhart Stewart. Well known for his appearances on television, Mr Urquhart Stewart is co-founder and Head of Corporate Development at Seven Investment Management. Stressing that everyone needed to spend more time looking at their own business and personal finances, he told his audience: “Your industry is vital to all of us. People are eating better, fresher stuff and you are in exactly the right place. You are also important employers with employees paying tax.”

Mr Urquhart Stewart covered a range of topics, including Trump, Brexit and Russia, often turning perceived wisdom on its head. “The reality is that the global economy is doing quite well,” he stressed. “The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, the eighth largest manufacturer and the tenth largest exporter. The value of our economy per head of population is bigger than Germany’s and as a nation we are setting up more new businesses than Germany, France or the United States.”

However, he warned that access to finance was vital to continue this growth: “If people lose confidence we will have to spend more financing our debt.” He concluded with another positive message for farmers and growers: “People’s attitudes are changing and they will buy quality, but you have to tell them that something is quality.”

Written by Richard Crowhurst.