WHEN YOU wander around a supermarket or browse through the menu options at your local restaurant, you may well be forgiven for forgetting that seasonality exists. Produce can now be provided to consumers all year round – with the option to enjoy strawberries as part of your Christmas dinner.
It appears that most traditionally seasonal UK produce can now be provided to consumers all year round – with the option to enjoy asparagus in February and strawberries as part of your Christmas dinner.
“Consumers like what they are used to,” explains Nicolas Marston, managing director at fruit supplier, Berry Gardens. “And, as people generally enjoy seasonal products like soft fruits, they want to be able to purchase them on a regular basis – no matter what the time of year.”
Whilst this availability is fantastic for consumers, it poses serious challenges to suppliers who are then left with the unenviable task of sourcing these goods, all through the year.
One obvious solution is to balance the traditional UK season with imported produce that has been grown abroad in more hospitable climates. But as Steve Tones, head of development at the Horticultural Development Company (HDC) points out, this process can prove incredibly complicated. “Managing the seasonal influx in produce supplies from different regions relies on accurate, up-to date information on alternative sources of supply, market demand and the best forecasting data available. Obtaining all of this information is far from easy.”
Even with the best information to hand, the unpredictability of sourcing products from abroad can still create serious operational headaches for suppliers, as one example from fruit and vegetable importer, FESA UK Ltd can testify. “Lettuce grown in Spain is planned to give us supply until the middle of May, when traditionally the UK starts its own crop of lettuce,” explains national account manager, Chris Bore. “However, because of extreme weather in 2012, British crops did not start to become available until well into June and this meant that for two to three weeks we had to air freight iceberg lettuce from North America in order to continue supply to our customers without interruption. This isn’t out of the ordinary and in the past we have gone as far afield as California and Australia to ensure we continue to give our customers the service they require. Obviously this creates financial and logistical issues that are very challenging to overcome.”
In order to offer an alternative to importation, UK growers of traditionally seasonal produce are now stepping up their efforts to utilise technology and artificially extend crops domestic growing season. “In order to help meet demand,” explains Berry Gardens managing director, Nicolas Marston, “we have expanded our glasshouse growing system extensively – utilising a wood chip fuelled biomass boiler to provide extra heat during the colder months and enable us to maintain early season varieties of soft fruit in the UK.
Berry Gardens is also introducing new lighting systems to sustain growth of early season berry crops, which simply wouldn’t get enough sunlight during the winter months without artificial assistance.” A more contentious implementation of technology, is the use of genetically modified produce to extend the growing season of crops in the UK, something that Steve Tones believes has great potential.
“Genetic modification, if it receives approval for use in the EU, offers the chance to revolutionise seasonality through the exploitation of genes responsible for plant growth, development and tolerance of adverse environmental conditions.
With access to GM crops that better suit the UK climate, growers would have the chance to extend the growing seasons without the need for extensive technological assistance.” However, irrespective of technological advances, growers looking to extend their period of supply are also making significant gains by simply adapting growing practices and techniques – often without the need for energy-intensive protected crop production systems. “Whilst technology can be very useful in helping to ensure the growth of early season crops in the UK,” continues Nicolas Marston of Berry Gardens, “growers also need to focus on identifying the best main crop varieties of produce which will naturally extend their growing season.”
A well-publicised example of this can be found in asparagus crops, with grower John Chinn working with retailer Marks & Spencer to provide them with their earliest ever crop of British grown asparagus. By successfully identifying specific varieties that will work well in the UK, and developing a polytunnel growing system, Mr Chinn has been able to significantly increase the availability of British asparagus beyond the traditional season.
Whilst extension of the growing season like this has obvious benefits for those looking to buy seasonal produce from the UK all year round, does it have any environmental benefits? Surely, if we are able to supply more home grown produce this can only mean good things environmentally? “Assessing the potential environmental benefits of extending the UK season for any crops is complicated and difficult,” explains Steve Tones. “A lot will depend on the overall efficiency of the resources required for crop production and the environmental cost of international logistics. In the future the AgriTech Innovation Centres and the Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability will both have a key role in helping suppliers calculate and compare not only the economic, but also the environmental risks and benefits of seasonal crop extension in the UK”. Environmental issues are also set to directly influence the UK growing season, with climate change causing suppliers of seasonal produce even greater challenges in the future. “I believe that it will take a long time beforeclimate change dramatically alters what we grow, but it will cause serious problems in the short term,” explains Nicolas Marston. “Increasingly unpredictable weather, such as droughts and high winds, cause us real problems with the supply of seasonal produce and I can only see these events becoming more regular.” What is clear, therefore, is that whilst huge progress is being made on UK season extension, the issues of seasonality are to stay. Undoubtedly, seasonal production is changing. New technology, new varieties and new weather patterns are bringing growers new opportunities. But the complexity of delivering year round supply of seasonal produce is only likely to increase as climate disruption becomes more of an issue. And the environmental benefits of domestic season extension are not always as clear-cut as they fist seem. Plenty to think about, then, next time you are tucking into a strawberry in the depths of winter.
This article appeared in the Spring Issue of Reynolds The Marketplace
The Horticultural Development Company (HDC)
The HDC devises and delivers challenge-led strategic and sector driven programmes of applied research, knowledge exchange and development activities to drive innovation in British horticulture and enable the industry to continually improve its competitiveness, productivity and sustainability.
Key challenges include the loss of pesticides arising from changes in EU regulatory policy, the availability and affordability of skilled professional labour, increasing input and material costs, and competition, both within and between UK supply chains and from overseas.
Growers have a direct influence over the HDC’s programmes through membership of the HDC Board, Sector Panels, and the industry Grower Associations that advise them.
The output of HDC programmes is communicated to the industry through HDC News, the HDC website, e-news bulletins, and a wide variety of digital and printed publications and programmes of events, including field demonstrations, conferences, workshops, seminars and study tours.
Visit www.hdc.org.uk to find out more.