‘We might as well pack up and go home unless returns improve’ was the verdict at a recent meeting of Brassica Growers.
This season has seen shortages of workers, transport and packaging materials resulting in rapidly escalating costs for growers. But returns for fresh produce have remained static. ‘We thought last season was challenging with the Covid restrictions but 2021 has brought a whole new set of challenges’ reflected one grower.
New immigrations rules and quarantine regulations have affected the willingness of Settled and Pre settled status workers to return to the UK and increase the reliance on the new Seasonal Worker Permit scheme. Growers are experiencing intense competition for workers from higher margin industries who are tempting some staff away from the UK’s fresh produce sector.
The well documented shortage of haulage drivers has driven up haulage prices and led to a scarcity of drivers especially at weekends. Consumers expect to find shelves stocked with fresh produce 24/7 and this is getting increasingly more difficult due to current transport shortages.
Packaging is another commodity which seems to be in short supply resulting in higher and higher prices. Even the costs of fertiliser and basic machinery are outstripping the rate of inflation with prices up by as much as 40%.
Jack Ward CEO of British Growers said we are seeing similar comments across the fresh produce sector with other crops such as onions, carrots and leeks experiencing the same problems. We’re reaching the time in the year where the sector is flat out and retailers depend on the UK’s growers for supplies of super fresh vegetables and fruit. We desperately need to see an improvement in returns to growers to cover these escalating input costs. Labour costs have risen by as much as 15% already as growers try to attract staff and compete with other industries. Haulage contracts are proving more difficult to arrange with prices up by 10% and the possibility of further rises as the season progresses.
Vegetables and fruit represent incredibly good value for money, but growers need to cover their costs and reinvest in their businesses. ‘We can’t operate in an environment where costs go up and up and product prices don’t – this is a road to ruin. Everyone is focused on improving efficiency and delivering more for less, but this can only go so far’ said one grower.
With the interest in healthy eating and the increased consumption of vegetables and fruit, we should be looking at an exciting new phase of fresh produce production here in the UK. But unless there is some acceptance that returns to growers must reflect increased input costs, the appetite to soldier on and reinvest for the future is being seriously eroded. Growers keep being asked to mitigate inflation, but they are already working on paper-thin margins and there is nothing left to be squeezed. Unless there is a serious shift in the valuation of food, we are at risk of crops being left in the ground and supermarket shelves left empty.
Jack Ward: email@example.com