Coming a cropper

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Related tags: Broccoli, Agriculture

The wettest summer on record has seen destruction of crops across the UK, with many vegetables now in short supply and prices on the increase. Lucy...

The wettest summer on record has seen destruction of crops across the UK, with many vegetables now in short supply and prices on the increase. Lucy Britner reports

The extreme weather conditions of this summer have made the record books, with the Met Office recording the period of May to July as the wettest since records began in 1766.

Torrential rain and flooding has caused damage to crops and grass across parts of western, central and southern England, with farmers and growers battling to salvage the harvest.

The knock-on effect for buyers means crops are smaller and more expensive, and in some cases they will have to be imported from abroad. Either way, produce will not be cheap.

According to Paul Willington, foodservice distributor 3663's buying controller for fresh and chilled produce, cauliflower and broccoli prices are up 300% on last year.

He said: "The primary impact has been in Lincolnshire, and brassicas have been affected. Cabbages are hardier, but the cauliflower and broccoli crop has been badly affected. Both are three times more expensive than this time last year." Paul says customers should expect to pay 25% to 30% more for carrots and parsnips.

He says: "Crops such as carrots and parsnips are being lifted by hand because growers can't get the machinery on to the land. The pick rates are slower and the overheads are higher." He says the effect is likely to be felt more later in the season. "Young plants have been distressed by the adverse weather conditions and crops are likely to be smaller."

Chef/proprietor Mark Gough from the Tolle-mache Arms in Buckminster, on the Lincolnshire and Leicestershire borders, says he has noticed slight price increases. "A few local farmers have had blight in their potatoes, so I'm having to go further afield for them. When I go to Oakham market to buy vegetables, I have noticed that cauliflower is a few pence more expensive."

James Rogers, chef/licensee of the Grundisburgh Dog, Grundisburgh, Suffolk, says: "We have taken broccoli off the menu for the past couple of months. It isn't grown much in Suffolk and although I like to buy local, broccoli is the one thing we have to get from up north. But Hull was badly flooded and prices rocketed from £3.20 to £5.40 per kilo. We can't justify buying it."

Fresh Direct managing director Nigel Harris agrees. He says: "Growers have been put under enormous pressure due to the flooding. Lettuce and brassica crops have been affected the most, with many growers having to take produce from the ground early to avoid damage and maintain supplies. Despite growers' best efforts, the quality and shelf life of these crops will, in many cases, have been compromised."

In the long term, buyers will experience a dip in shelf life and also food-price inflation. Many crops have experienced leaching of nutrients, weakening the plants and making them more susceptible to pests and disease. New crop planting has been delayed, affecting the timing of seasonal crops.

Despite the dry spell at the beginning of August, growers will be forced to cut the youngest, freshest crop to satisfy demand, and availability will tighten as yields are reduced.

This year has also been a particularly bad year for potato blight with organic potatoes in particular hit badly, because farmers can't treat the problem with chemicals.

Neil Beeton, marketing manager at MBMG, distributors of the Potato Lovers range of fresh potatoes, says: "UK farmers are facing one of the worst seasons for blight in many years."

The British Potato Council says the impact is not likely to be clear until the autumn. A spokesperson says: "The flooding, whilst causing severe losses for some individual growers, has not impacted on GB supply, as yet, to any

significant degree.

"The full picture about the 2007 crop will not be clear until September or October."

Neil Beeton says potatoes for long-term

storage will remain a major concern for the UK and Europe well into next year. He adds: "Effective management of potato stocks and storage, and close working with farmers and customers will be key."

But it's not just arable farmers and smallholders that are suffering. Livestock farmers are facing millions of pounds worth of damage that includes drowned animals and ruined hay and silage crops.

National Farmers' Union chief livestock advisor Peter King told the Meat Trades Journal that "the bigger implications will be later in the season" when farmers can assess the lack of bedding and food for livestock. Peter predicted no knock-on increases for consumers, but said retailers need to support badly-hit farmers.

He says: "It is so important that the retailers and the supply chain give positive signals to the farming sector, because if they really want home produce, which is what customers keep telling them, they need to understand that it comes at a price."

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