For the next couple of years Valefresco’s technical manager, Jackie Harris, will sit at the helm of the British Leafy Salads Association (BLSA), following the departure of Vitacress’ Graham Clarkson. In one of her first interviews as its new chair, Produce Business UK asks how the industry aims to remain at the top of its game during her tenure
Jackie, you have 25 years’ experience within the fresh produce sector, in particular with salads and herbs, having worked for some of the biggest names in the sector, including Organic Farm Foods, Lighthorne Herbs, Vitacress, VHB Herbs and Lincolnshire Herbs, and currently as the technical manager of Valefresco. What do you bring to the table at the British Leafy Salads Association?
Jackie Harris (JH): I have a grower’s point of view, which means I recognise and understand the challenges that they face, such as the weather or different varietals. Since starting out in the business at the age of 14 (when I worked for a local market gardener) my passion for fresh produce has gone from strength to strength.
It’s been said that BLSA will benefit specifically from your knowledge and expertise in outdoor, protected and baby leaf. Why is that so important?
JH: It represents the core of our industry today, especially protected because the weather in the UK is now very unpredictable. Moving towards protected and covered growing is the way to go [for British growers]. Covered production (usually under plastic polytunnels) controls the temperature via different sensors. It also controls the presence of foreign bodies (wind-blown debris like seed pods or feathers) and pests. It’s very important to make the ground as clean as possible and to have as few foreign bodies as you can because with dense crops like lettuce and spinach they’re hard to remove.
What are your plans and objectives as the BLSA’s new chair?
JH: My objective is to listen to the members, look at what the industry is doing and both focus on and fulfil the members’ needs, especially in areas like innovation. For example, a few different members are working on some new varieties that we’ll be able to assess more comprehensively in six months’ time. Leafy salads is a vibrant industry and I’m looking forward to working alongside BLSA members and other organisations to further raise its profile to promote British salads and produce at every opportunity.
Just how well is the leafy salads category faring at the moment?
JH: Very well. We’ve experienced a 2% growth [in sales] in the last year, which indicates that consumers are still buying salads. We aim to increase that market growth in the future by encouraging people to eat more salads and ensuring they are able to make an informed choice. Nowadays there are so many different varieties and colours of salads, even red and coral-coloured leaves! The category is so interesting with all the different flavours and textures.
What innovation is being carried out? Can you tell us more about those new varieties that are on trial?
JH: There are a lot of new innovations in salads and the brassica industry too, which is represented by the Brassica Growers Association. Kale is one of them. It’s made a remarkable impact on the category, and it’s also very popular in smoothies and juices. We’re now working on different varieties and colours of kale.
The category is constantly changing in response to demands from both growers and consumers. Overall, as an industry, the growers are looking for hardier salads that are disease resistant because the portfolio of chemicals that we can use is shrinking. We’re also looking for varieties that are cost effective, productive and present better growing characteristics.
From a customer and consumer perspective, what characteristics are you looking for in new varieties?
JH: Flavour is very important, as is texture. We’re also looking for varieties that can withhold the washing process. Unwashed bags of salad are proving quite popular with consumers, and Valefresco does a couple of branded and non-branded lines of unwashed. Consumers like it because it puts the control and responsibility of washing the leaves back into their hands. Sadly, there have been some unfavourable articles in the press, which has placed a focus on unwashed produce. They are, of course, unfounded. We have very robust systems in place.
Can we expect to see any new varieties available in the near future?
JH: As I said, we’re working on a few new varietal ideas but it takes a while for those to develop because they have to go through several trials. Apart from the work on kale that the brassica industry is doing, we’re looking at a hardier variety of rocket, and disease-resistant spinach. Spinach is susceptible to mildew and there are always different types of mildew appearing. You can lose quite a lot of your crop to disease.
The industry works with the major seed houses and most of the growers have their own trial plots because performance depends on your specific soils, your microclimate, etc. As an association there’s a lot of knowledge sharing but, at the same time, the market is competitive so every grower has his/her own individual objectives.
How is the industry adapting to changes in the UK market?
JH: We like to recognise our customers’ needs before they do, so we follow the trends. Right now, it’s about pack sizes but that depends on what each customer [retailer] needs too. We make suggestions and ensure the sizes are the right fit for the consumer – whether that’s offering single servings or the right amount of servings per bag, as well as the right ingredients. We identify those needs through the surveys carried out as part of our campaign. The retailers conduct their own surveys too.
What are the greatest challenges for the industry?
JH: The weather! From bed forming and ground preparation to drilling equipment, and even harvesting. It’s hard to predict because it’s so changeable. No two summers are the same anymore. Last year wasn’t too bad but the year before was wet. This year has started wet and cold, although the Met Office predicts temperatures will be higher than average this summer. During the last couple of weeks they’ve been below average and in the last week we’ve had very strong winds and rain. We hope the Met Office is correct and that over the next two months people fire up their BBQs and eat lots of salad!
Another challenge is land selection. You need clean land and a good water source [for salad production]. There are quite a lot of accreditation pressures that have to be met and quite rightly so – we have high standards. It’s a challenge to find land but it is there so we remain positive.
We’ve spoken about varietal innovation, so where is the salad industry going in terms of technological advances?
JH: It’s all about precision farming and being as efficient as possible. When planting, if you miss out a row of crops or if the density of the crop isn’t as it should be, it [the cost] can add up. So, every grower is aware of the importance of yields.
Equipment is always changing. We’ve now got GPS in the tractors for forming the beds. There are mechanical hoes with infra-red sensors that can distinguish the weeds from the crop, which is amazing when you think both are green. We have hoovers to scoop up debris and pests. Special fleeces are also being used on open lettuce production to prevent some pests from attacking crops.
It’s quite astounding what goes into salad production and this is something that the public takes notice of on open days when we invite them to visit our farms through schemes like Open Farm Sunday.
One of your objectives is to raise the profile of British salads and produce. How do you plan to achieve that, and, ultimately, to increase sales?
JH: It’s all about generating interest, educating, encouraging and persuading consumers of all ages to try something new in the salad category, while prompting existing consumers to eat and try more. At the same time, we have to ensure we develop the right products and react to the changing needs of consumers.
Are you getting enough support from the retailers?
JH: The retailers are already good supporters and they want to listen. They do understand the growers and some work in direct contact with them. We rely on the retailers to promote our products. As explained, the salads category has grown by 2% in the last year and that is continued growth despite the changing weather pattern. We work closely with the retailers and we need to maintain that relationship. They want to serve the best products just as much as we do.
How is BLSA engaging with consumers?
JH: Through our website Salad Days – Make More of Salad we engage with consumers through recipes, meet the grower days, etc. Valefresco supports our local village and we take part in Open Farm Sunday where we offer tractor rides through the farm and put our machinery on display. It’s a good opportunity for people who’ve never seen how a salad farm operates. As I said, our tractors, for example, aren’t just tractors, they are sophisticated machines with GPS systems. The technology on the whole is really quite comprehensive.
What’s your message to consumers?
JH: The current Salad Days campaign is all about encouraging consumers to ‘make more of salad’. Household penetration is strong but we want to inspire people to buy more often. The campaign targets all shoppers but there’s a particular focus on women aged 28 to 34 who are most receptive to buying leafy salads but who have a lower frequency of purchase than other demographics.
A whole range of recipe ideas are hosted on the Make More of Salad website and these are promoted to both consumer and food media. This activity is designed to get people thinking beyond the obvious when it comes to using leaves. Health information is an important element of the campaign too since health is a key driver to purchase.
The campaign also runs an education programme that targets primary schools. A range of curriculum-linked teaching resources are available on the website and last year we ran a successful competition with 1,000 schools in which pupils were tasked with growing their own salad. It’s all designed to inspire the next generation of consumer.
What new can we expect from the Salad Days campaign going forward?
JH: A new campaign for 2016 is in the offing and the BLSA has applied to the European Union for funding to support this. We plan to reinvigorate the campaign as well as the website but I can’t tell you anymore than that at the moment!