Farmers and growers face no shortage of challenges at present. For many the immediate priority is simply staying financially viable for the next 12 months and trying to identify the most profitable (or the least costly) cropping strategy to allow this.
However, beyond the immediate economic situation, our industry faces a greater range of challenges than ever before. These include declining consumption (largely linked to the financial crisis), crop protection, labour, environmental challenges and water availability.
Although March and April may have delivered many growers more water than required for the time of year (although some in the east and the south west will only just have filled their reservoirs, if they are lucky enough to have them), in the long-term growers in the east of the country – traditionally the heartland for water-intensive crops such as potatoes, root crops and salads – face a number of water related issues.
In fact, while water may have been dislodged from many minds by more pressing and immediate concerns, last year’s drought and this year’s wet winter have once again brought it back into focus.
A number of events this year, organised by organisations including Agri-TechE, the UK Irrigation Association, the Fresh Produce Consortium, and others, have all highlighted the practical, environmental and political factors which will come into play in the coming years. As NFU national water resources specialist Kelly Hewson-Fisher has pointed out at many of these events, farmers are almost unique among key water abstractors in that they tend not to have long term plans for water management.
Given how dependent our industry and our produce is on the availability of water, this is something that has to change, and growers are rightly being encouraged to engage with stakeholders such as catchment groups and the Environment Agency to understand how they can increase the resilience of their business to the reduced water demand that they are likely to see in coming years.
Given the issues that fresh produce suppliers frequently encounter when dealing with multiple retailers, anything which can provide new markets for our produce is to be welcomed. However, much of the R&D and enterprise investment which is supported by government, such as the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, is focused on looking at strategic high-level research, rather than solving the practical production challenges faced by UK growers.
There will be no benefits for UK growers from soup made from a new variety of broccoli if they are unable to grow it due to a lack of crop protection or harvesting technology for example. Unless government departs come together and address the entire supply chain (including consumption and health aspects), then all we will do is create new products and market opportunities for our overseas competitors.
Moving to indoor production of crops such as broccoli may help to overcome many of the challenges cited above, but once again questions need to be answered about who will manage the countryside if farmers are all busy working in greenhouses and warehouses. There is no doubt that controlled environmental agriculture will become more and more important, but many questions need to be answered before it becomes the panacea for UK food production that many believe it to be.
The May issue also includes article on:
- Disease R&D tops technical agenda for herbs
- Growing with the future in mind at A.H. Worth
- Takii Europe – Big in Brassica
- Grounds breaking research to reduce pre and post harvest losses
To read these and more from “The Vegetable Farmer” subscribe today – find out more here.