West Sussex continues to play an important part in UK horticulture

The West Sussex region will continue to play an important part in the UK horticulture sector, providing a unique position to help the UK sector to take advantage of post-Brexit opportunities and socio-economic changes.

These were just a few of the findings from the West Sussex Growers Association’s (WSGA) Understanding the Horticulture Sector in West Sussex report.

Launched last month, the research report looked into the nature, contribution, and future of the horticultural sector in West Sussex. It said the WSGA must continue to look outwards and work closely with its stakeholders and the wider community to boost understanding of the sector and its local and national strategic importance.

The report, which was based on surveying 48 growers as well as in-depth research, concluded that the West Sussex horticultural businesses make a ‘very important’ contribution in economic and employment terms to the local economy in West Sussex and to the national horticultural industry, in excess of the size of the business population.

It said that the South East of England produces nearly half the country’s top fruit and soft fruit. It is home to a quarter of the UK’s glasshouses, producing protected edibles and ornamentals and that the survey ‘confirmed’ the region as a ‘powerhouse’ of high productivity horticulture, which is of strategic importance to the county.

The survey also found that that market demand is growing for growers in the region, with three-quarters of West Sussex growers reported demand rising in their main markets in the last year.

Responding to the survey, growers said sustainability is embraced as a positive consumer influence and an opportunity for West Sussex growers. But they also said there are hard operational and commercial challenges ahead for growers. “Defra’s target is to phase out peat from commercial horticulture by 2030, which might be accelerated. It is imperative that legislators and consumers insist that this prohibition also applies to imported plants. Alternative, responsibly sourced growing media is available, and our local growers have the expertise to excel in producing quality plants,” said the report.

Growers said that other important factors included water usage. “There is no need for horticulture to be in competition for municipal water. Already 88% of our growers practice some sort of rainwater harvesting or use a borehole for some, or all of their water. The principal obstacles to improving water sustainability are the bureaucratic burden and restrictions on planning consent for reservoirs and boreholes, even within the Horticultural Development Area, and the inconsistent availability of capital grant funding. Our local authorities should seize this as an economic opportunity. The ‘virtual water trade’ will become increasingly important and a competitive advantage for West Sussex.”

On the subject of access to labour, the report said 58% of respondents to its survey cited skills and labour as a very important external driver of change in the short term. “The extension of the Season Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS)to 30,000 for 2021 is a clear signal that the Government recognises the importance of the sector, but it falls short of the 70,000 needed. We need the Government to include the ornamentals sector in this scheme; make the scheme permanent; and recognise that these skilled, taxpaying workers are not immigrants seeking settled status, any more than international students studying at our universities are.”

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