Three years ago salad giant Florette introduced to the UK a new type of protected growing structure – a multi-chapelle – for its British growing operation Angflor. That site has now doubled in size; allowing Florette to reduce its dependency on imports, boost UK self sufficiency and minimise the risk of damage to crops caused by the elements, pests and disease. Florette UK and Ireland’s outgoing managing director Neil Sanderson [it was reported this week he is leaving to take up the role of director of the York Minster Fund] chats to Produce Business UK about Angflor’s success and how other UK produce businesses could follow its lead
Year-round production of baby leaf salad
The investment by Florette into multi-chapelles on its coastal farm in Colchester, Essex, is perhaps unsurprising given that their impact on salad production has been similar to the game-changing effect that traditional polytunnels have had on the soft fruit sector. Considering the wealth of expertise that lies behind the establishment of Angflor, it is also little wonder the baby leaf salad growing project has rapidly doubled in size.
Having observed the techniques of growers on the European continent, the Angflor team cannily invested in the same type of large, polytunnel-like structures used by Florette’s growers in Spain and France. And now, the partnership between the UK-based salad growing and marketing operation Jepco and pan-European group Florette has increased from an initial 11 hectares to an impressive 22 hectares.
Multi-chapelles resemble big glasshouses; boasting a sturdy metal ‘skeleton’ that instead of being fleshed out with glass are cloaked in a lighter, mesh-like material. As they cost-effectively protect young crops from all weathers, even snow, the structures have enabled Angflor, which supplies Florette exclusively, to become the UK’s first significant, year-round production site for lambs lettuce – the key ingredient in Florette’s popular Classic Crispy salad. The operation also grows rocket, ruby chard, PepperCress and baby kale.
So far, Sanderson says consumer response to Angflor’s products has been “overwhelmingly positive”, not least due to the environmental benefits of reducing the need to import from overseas.
Self sufficiency: the mark of things to come?
The enclosed growing environment provided by multi-chapelles is also helping to minimise the risk of damage to crops caused by the elements, pests and diseases. Given that the changing weather patterns are causing an increased likelihood of such damage, the UK’s wider fresh produce industry could certainly learn from this type of investment.
Sanderson explains: “We are seeing increased challenges year-on-year from climate change and extreme weather conditions, which is making the benefits of protected cropping more and more clear. However, the cost associated in setting it up can be difficult to overcome. This means growers, packers and retailers need to work together towards long-term commitments; to justify the initial capital required for such projects.”
As well as providing a safe environment for crops, the Angflor site – which was chosen for its good light levels and low rainfall – has also helped Florette to significantly reduce its food miles. Prior to setting up Angflor, Florette’s entire salad supply was imported from France and Spain.
Sanderson points out: “The Angflor vision was to see Florette focus on innovation, freshness and sustainability and the results speak for themselves as the site has helped reduce food miles by 36,404 miles and collects 30 million gallons of water per annum.”
Arguably, there are many other fresh produce companies in the UK that may like to follow suit but, as Sanderson re-iterates, this can only happen if everyone in the supply chain, including fresh produce buyers, is willing to work together and invest.
He says: “Reducing the industry’s reliance on imports will inevitably mean increasing environmental resilience in the supply chain for raw materials, and increased local production is definitely a strong solution to this issue.
“Ultimately, self-sufficiency will require significant investment in research into new technologies, techniques and varieties – but most of all, an industry-wide commitment to long-term development throughout the chain.”
Driving employment and skills
Having now successfully expanded its ability to source key ingredients from Britain, Florette’s UK growing operation is busily tackling the pressing issue of a lack of younger growers entering the industry.
For Florette at least that problem is being addressed through a comprehensive, new apprenticeship scheme developed by Angflor. “We are currently working with Eastern and Otley College for land-based studies, via a course that can be completed in three years,” reveals Sanderson. “Apprentices will leave us with a Level Three qualification in horticulture, and the course covers all jobs – from basic agronomic learning to mechanical harvesting and weeding our specialist crops.”
Aside from creating jobs and employment in the local area through the scheme, Angflor is this year planning to focus on strengthening its production operation. “We look forward to seeing the Angflor site continue to grow and produce even more salad in 2016,” concludes Sanderson.
With a bright – and protected – future ahead, Angflor will no doubt continue to inspire other fresh produce firms along way too.