The UK Cucumber Growers Association (CGA) is calling the bell. The three main reasons for concern are the extreme rise in gas prices, the lack of available labour and the shortage of means of transport. “But the cost of all the materials we use has also increased. The challenges facing farm owners and managers are greater than ever before,” says Joe Sheperdson, Secretary of the CGA. In an open letter to their members ‘ customers, he warns against food shortages if no corrective measures are taken.
While the UK Cucumber Growers Association has never before contacted their members ‘ customers directly, Joe Sheperdson explains that the industry is going through a crisis. The organisation represents the 17 largest greenhouse Cucumber Growers in the UK, and according to Joe, they will be forced to make decisions over the coming winter on the economic viability of often long-standing family farms in a sector that has been on the mark for over 100 years.
Of the main reasons for concern, the first is the extreme rise in gas prices. Gas is used to heat the greenhouses and deliver CO2. “Both factors are crucial for growing the crops and for achieving the yields needed to survive in today’s sector. This item typically represents up to 30% of the operating costs of a cucumber company and has increased by 300% compared to pre-pandemic levels,” explains Joe.
The next problem is the availability, quality and cost of Labour. “With the impact of both Brexit and the restrictive coronavirus measures, the sector is facing an unprecedented level of deficits. Members regularly report that up to 40% of permanent posts are not filled and the retention rate is only 50%, ” says Joe.
Growers have tried that, according to Joe, you have to solve by precarious employment, and a continuous supply, the situation is made more difficult by the fact that other sectors will also have to contend with handentekort, and thus in the labour market in search of power.
“These other sectors can often absorb part of the increase in labour costs through lower margins and/or higher consumer prices for their products. This is not feasible for a company that supplies AGF products and is completely dependent on the UK retail market. After all, they determine the purchase prices and in practice this means that the maximum achievable producer prices are limited. So we see our staff moving to other sectors. This cost item also generally represents 30% of the total cost of production.”
The third factor that gives Cucumber Growers a headache is the limited availability and reliability of transport and the increase in its costs. “Logistics is widely known to be a problem factor because of its immediate visible impact on the entire supply chain. The horticultural sector is no less affected than other parts of the British economy in this respect.”
While these are the three main issues that worry growers, prices have also increased for all materials used in cultivation, from seeds and fertilizers to growing media and plastics. “A large part of the increase in this cost is directly linked to the three major problems previously outlined, but a part is also due to the cumbersome bureaucracy in the post-Brexit era, such as phytosanitary inspection requirements when importing plants and the damage this process can cause to the plants, resulting in lower yields in the greenhouse.”
To address these challenges, the Cucumber Growers Association is asking members of the British Retail Consortium to end unsustainable pricing practices for UK-grown AGF products and to work with their direct suppliers to see where the thumb screw can be loosened for growers. At the same time, the association asks the government to implement a policy that protects farms against rising energy costs and gives better access to working arrangements such as the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP).
“Compared to arable farming, the yield per square metre of any greenhouse crop is usually ten times higher. Indoor cultivation also consumes only 10% of the water from outdoor cultivation and creates up to five times more jobs than a comparable arable farm in production volume,” Joe calculates.
“After Brexit, much has been done to support UK companies that want to export, including advice. The primary contribution of horticulture is to reduce food imports and the considerable potential of the sector can be used to support public objectives in the areas of Health and well-being, employment, energy production, water management and environmental management. But instead of making smart use of this resource – the UK used to be a leader in the past – we are faced with a scenario in current trading conditions where farms are left empty and disappear, requiring more food imports and thousands of jobs to be lost.”
In response to those who expect the market to always be self-correcting and who think that low prices due to price wars are good for consumers because they keep the cost of Living Low, Joe says this is an extremely short-term view. The long-term effects are less competition and greater dependence on imports, which is also one of the causes of the energy crisis and of the food shortages in the first months of the pandemic. Ultimately, according to Joe, this situation leads to higher food costs for the consumer.
“We are writing this open letter to highlight the situation of our British growers, but we also see the same challenges with our European colleagues and in other sectors. There is a very real chance of scarcity in some food products by the beginning of 2022 if no corrective measures are taken now to support growers.”