Last week I sent you an excited note to say we were able to source some caulis from one of our growers. The reason for my excitement was that I had been horrified at the price of caulis from Europe.
The good news is that we continue to source a small amount of caulis from the same grower, but behind any price hike there is (usually) a story. We know that weather has been poor in Europe for some months – so what is the full story?
The two Southern European countries of Spain and Italy provide much of the produce that is exported to the UK. Spain itself accounts for over 20% of the EU organic production and is in the top 3 of the EU’s producers. Both countries have experienced wet weather late last year (Italy had particular bad storms) and cold weather this year, with some much warmer days in between resulting in fluctuating temperatures.
Generally the growing is in unheated greenhouses or outside, so both types of growing are affected and many of the more sensitive plants such as courgettes hate fluctuating temperatures – as many of you growers will know, as cold spells in our Summers are certainly not uncommon!
Whilst the situation is poor this year it is not as bad as the beginning of last year when, as many of you will remember, broccoli and other vegetables and salads (remember Iceberg lettuces in the media?) were absent from the supermarket shelves. What is evident though is that the climate is changing in these areas and extreme weather is becoming the norm. The extreme and more elongated Winters give way rapidly to more extreme and lengthy Summers, thus Spring and Autumn are disappearing.
The outcome is quite stark with Spanish growers losing over 50% of the vegetable crops in recent weeks. In Italy, Swiss chard, broccoli and leafy salad crops have been almost wiped out. Italian cauliflower is at its peak production at present but delivery bottlenecks are slowing the flow of this product to markets. Even if you buy a cauli from Italy, at its higher than normal price, it could be much smaller than normal. The sizing for export trade to EU countries are not being met due to the cold weather.
Another brassica affected is broccoli. Supply shortages are being experienced which manifest sometimes as supply gaps. This has increased the price of broccoli but not to the extent of caulis and lettuce.
We have noticed an increase in the price of aubergines which went up by 60% in one week!! And we predict that courgette prices will be volatile in the next few months.
So what is happening to UK organic growing? The first observation is that within the UK as a whole organic growing has reduced, which is against the overall EU trend. We are not alone in this as Poland (which in recent years had a booming organic growing sector) and 2 other EU countries have done the same. But that means 24 other EU countries have increased production (by the way this statistic covers arable and livestock too). Generally we are seeing fairly static growing but an increase in demand from buyers (retail and commercial) which suggests to us that there is a trend towards buying from UK/local producers. Perhaps this is driven by the sterling/EU exchange rate, but there is likely to be a “buy local/British” element within.
We have noticed that the produce availability period is reducing, as fields are stripped of their maturing produce more quickly by the demand. Equally, in times of extreme weather (and the “once bitten, twice shy” hard-learned philosphy of the grower) we suspect the growers are making sure that they get a return for their hard efforts whilst they can. There is a possible socio economic implication to this trend. The discounting of the value of food coupled with changing climates has accentuated the commercial aptitude of the growing community. It is true, that I rarely see laid back growers these days. But I, and I am sure our customers, value their skills immensely.
We are undertaking comittments to our growers so that our needs are built into their growing plans. We believe it is the only way of ensuring that our customers can access the produce that they desire. I use the word desire intentionally, because over the years my body has screamed at me to eat certain foods, and now I listen. And the benefits are obvious. I wrote once, in an old GG newsletter, about my 4 hour visit to Orchard Farm where our eggs come from. The educative story about the hens, their cockerels and their daily attitude towards getting their bodies in “tip top” condition was so mind opening that I realised we instinctively have the pointers from our body. It is that any many wonderful episodes with our growers and our wonderful customers, whatever their situation, that motivate us.