For the first time ever, Irish Brussels sprouts are set to appear in UK kitchens – and their arrival highlights the problems being faced by many British growers this year. Product Business UK investigates.
December is the traditional highlight of the Brussels sprouts season, with demand increasing rapidly as Christmas approaches. Yet for some growers, it is proving to be a nightmare season as crops are nowhere near as good as usual.
Much of the problem is due to the arrival of the diamondback moth – also known as a cabbage moth – which turned up earlier in the growing season. Winds from the Continent brought in far higher numbers than normal and some reports at the time referred to tens of millions of the insects descending on farmland.
“The diamondback moth came in trillions on the wind, and came onto the crops at midsummer. It lays its eggs in the sprouts, the grubs fall into the sprout and unless you are using a very expensive spray, it is impossible to stop. Those growers who discovered it in time, and sprayed will be fine, but for others it will have devastated the crops. Lincolnshire has been badly affected,” says former grower turned food processor, Roger Welberry.
Reports of problems at the farm gate have been surfacing elsewhere. In Jersey, Woodside Farms had to plough the crop into the ground. It normally supplies all the supermarket chains in Jersey and Guernsey. There have also been unconfirmed reports of growers experiencing problems in the Cotswolds, while in Lancashire farmers are struggling, but hoping to ‘scrape through Christmas.’
The British Growers Association say: “Sprout supplies are tight for 2016 but most of the major suppliers will be managing this situation with their customers. The diamondback moth is a contributing factor, but not the sole cause of the tight supply situation. Low light levels, drought followed by excess rainfall have also added to the position.”
“Due to the weather pattern of 2016, the sprout crop is at an immature stage and hence the sprout buttons are smaller than at the same time last year, which will reduce yields. The challenge of harvesting sprouts this year for Christmas is that one and a half acres will have to be harvested to gain the equivalent tonnage to one acre last year.”
It is not just the UK that is suffering. Mark Versluis, of Van Nature in the Netherlands comments: “We have experienced quite the same problems as UK growers. Due to the moth, the climate during the end of the summer and start of the autumn, (dry but not sunny), the crops didn’t develop as usual.”
“Besides that we had some cold days early in November with even a frost during the nights. This left us with a lot of hard work to get some good quality as the Brussels sprouts available are smaller and the yield is lower than usual. We have always been exporting to the UK and we still are, but with the current demand for Brussels sprouts throughout Europe there isn’t enough volume available.”
Welberry says that prices have already begun to rise. “Growing sprouts is an expensive business, they are not a cheap crop to grow. It can cost £2,000 an acre to grow them, and you need to get at lest £400 a tonne to make it pay. There have been occasions in the past when there have been imports from the Netherlands but this is first time I have heard of sprouts being imported from Ireland.”
“I am not surprised to hear that the imports have been made. It is good news for their sprouts growers, they grow as many as we do and with the price going up it is making it viable to trade with us.”
The higher prices now being sought for sprouts has helped make it more cost effective for the Irish growers to export to the UK. The exports took place when the Euro was trading at 90c against Sterling.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time that sprouts grown in this country (Ireland) have been sent to the UK. Thankfully, Irish growers didn’t have the same weather and disease-related problems to cope with this year,” says Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) fresh produce development officer Pat Farrell.
While Charlie Hicks, of Total Produce comments that prices are virtually double those of last year, especially for prepared sprouts from Holland which are very hard to get.
“You have got to pay a fixed price, there is no negotiation. We are telling companies that you have to order now to get them – and be prepared to move off sprouts if necessary. The situation is likely to remain the same into next year. We are getting sprouts from wherever we can, but not many countries apart from Holland and ourselves (UK) grow them.”
And what of the future? Wilf Whittlle at Sharrocks also believes the challenges will continue.
“It has been a complicated year. It has been very tough for growers. Demand has increased with Christmas approaching and there have been problems in Holland with the weather. The problem of diamondback moth is 100 percent not exaggerated and I have seen the results with my own eyes. Supplies are limited and there is a lot of interest for sprouts to be imported.”
“Growing Brussels sprouts is hard work and I don’t think the growers involved get enough recognition for their dedication. There is a very small window for harvesting and it can be hard to make money out of Brussels sprouts. It is a huge shame because it’s a beautiful product which goes well with many dishes and is highly nutritious. I think it could be hard next year, everything depends on the growing conditions. It would be a shame if we lost any more British grown Brussels sprouts.”