Weathering the worst of the weather

by Jack Ward

Danish physicist Niels Bohr famously said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

I was reminded of this quote when I was invited to speak at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum, which looked at the priorities for the UK food supply chain and for the Groceries Code Adjudicator.

I don’t know if Niels Bohr came from farming stock but his quote is sums up the plight of many of today’s UK produce growers, no one can predict long-term weather patterns with any confidence.

The fresh produce section of a multiple retail outlet is often seen as the flagship element of the store.

But sitting behind this colourful display of fresh fruit, veg and salads is a complicated supply chain which in recent years has become the battleground for market share.

So what does all this feel like down on the farm?

A year ago British Growers carried out some research among 150 growers. We asked about the challenges and threats. Topping the poll along with rising wage costs and loss of actives were global competition, supply chain relationships and the weather.

So let’s take the weather and supply chain and see how they affect each other.

Spring 2015 was a bit like spring 2016 – cold. Low temperatures result in low growth rates. Not necessarily something that the supply chain fully appreciates.

Take carrots as an example - planted in the spring with the expectation of harvest from July onwards. By July you’ve only got 80% of the crop you expected due to the slow start to the growing season. So you harvest more area than planned to meet the volume demands of the supply chain.

You can only harvest carrots once so the problem is compounded across the season and eventually you start to run short. Not great in terms of meeting supply chain expectations.

July arrives and with it a heat wave. Great for the UK holiday scene, not so great for harvesting the UK pea crop where excessive temperatures accelerate growth rates over and above the rate at which they can be harvested and frozen. Net result - you end up leaving part of the crop in the field because it doesn’t meet the specification.

August - twice the average rainfall, half the average sunlight. For the UK apple producer (excepting those producers whose crops had been decimated by hail earlier in the season) rainfall influences size and sunlight determines skin finish - both critical issues for the supply chain.

So as a grower you have to juggle a specification set by the demands of the supply chain and a weather pattern which is hell bent on delivering something totally different.

Moving on to autumn 2015 – it’s unseasonably warm - great for keeping heating bills down. Not so clever back on the brassica production line where crops are running three weeks ahead of schedule and the supply chain is expecting Brussel sprout production to peak at Christmas not at the start of December.

Once again Mother Nature was clearly excluded from that particular brassica supply chain programming meeting.

And to round off the battle of production versus supply chain expectation - let’s return to the majestic carrot. Significant quantities of our carrots are grown around York. What happened to York at the start of the year – it flooded - and took several thousand tonnes of carrots out of the supply chain equation.

These are the realities of farming in a maritime climate. No one is looking for sympathy here. Dealing with the vagaries of the weather is what farmers do. But I use these examples to highlight the gap which can exist between the realities of growing fresh produce and the expectations of the supply chain.

Professor Tim Lang and Valerie Schoen recently produced a report on Horticulture in the UK. The headlines:
• The area used for the production of fruit and veg down by 27% over the last 20 years
• 74% of adults and 84% of children aren’t eating the recommended 400 grams of fresh fruit and veg a day
• And obesity is costing the NHS £5bn a year.

Is there an opportunity here for the UK fresh produce supply chain – yes.

Should all sectors of the supply chain be working together to realise these opportunities – yes?

The challenge from the grower perspective is this – Is there more scope within the supply chain to recognise the realities of growing herein the UK and at the same time realise the opportunity to promote, consume, sell and grow more fresh fruit and veg

Notwithstanding all the available technology and science, the weather is still a major determining factor.