Healthy start for British carrots notwithstanding usual challenges

Healthy start for British carrots notwithstanding usual challenges

Gill McShane
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The British carrot season is in full swing as producers harvest, pack and distribute the popular root vegetable for the next 11 months. While all the signs point towards another positive year for the £290m industry, growers are working collaboratively under the British Carrot Growers Association (BCGA) to address enduring challenges. Produce Business UK (PBUK) charts the season to date and discovers the efforts to tackle pests and disease.

“Yields of early carrots are so far very good and quality is generally good,” explains Ian Holmes, R&D chairman at the BCGA and company agronomist at Strawson Ltd, a large-scale fresh produce grower-packer and specialist supplier of carrots, leeks and parsnips based in Nottinghamshire. 

“The main crop is developing well at the moment, and continuity looks like it’ll be pretty good. Things are looking positive in terms of the year.” 

Holmes forecasts that early yields for 2017 will be above last year on the back of better weather conditions during the early production period.

“This year the UK had a much brighter June, which has helped to push along crop growth. Prior to that there were better weather conditions for getting the crop established compared with last year when we had a wet period through winter and into January, February and March, along with cooler conditions in March, April and May.”

Volume for the main season crop, meanwhile, is looking similar to last year. 

“Overall it looks good,” Holmes predicts. “There’s been a little bit of a challenge with the weather being quite dry in recent months. But we’ve had rainfall lately and most of the UK crop is irrigated anyway.” 

Ongoing challenges

The carrot crop is Britain’s major root vegetable. Grown mainly for the retail market, a hefty 22 billion seeds are sown annually, producing over 700,000 tonnes across 9,000 hectares. 

That equates to 100 carrots for every member of the population every year, making the UK fairly self-sufficient in supply. Carrots remain a staple in the shopping basket and consumption is stable.

Traditionally the harvest kicks off in early- to mid-June when the new season starts, and aims to continue for 12 months of supply.

Overall, British growers are happy with how the season is unfolding in 2017, according to Holmes.

“We do have some challenges on the crop protection side of things,” he explains. “Particularly in controlling aphids, weeds and our most challenging disease, cavity spot.”

Following another mild winter, Holmes says the incidence of aphids has been quite high in 2017, which poses a challenge in terms of controlling the pest. 

“It’s a seasonal challenge and a potential threat to the quality of the roots because the aphids transmit viruses that can affect carrot roots.”

As for cavity spot disease, Holmes says this is a perennial challenge for carrot producers that is unpredictable.

“It’s not easy to predict when and where it’s going to occur,” he says. “Although we tend to find a higher incidence during wetter seasons, it doesn’t follow the normal patterns of other soil-borne diseases. While quality is generally good at the moment there’s always an underlying level and threat that we are looking out for.”

On that note, he assures that British carrot growers will be checking their crops regularly during late summer and autumn for presence of the disease. 

Confronting pests and disease

While there is a relatively small number of growers that make up a large proportion of the UK’s carrot supply, the sector works collectively within the framework of the BCGA to cope with challenges like these.

“Within the association the R&D committee helps to prioritise the areas we want to work on and improve,” Holmes explains. 

“The committee works together with the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) to guide both the scientific and practical research with scientists and commercial companies regarding the issues we’re facing to help us going forward.”

At present, crop protection dominates the practical challenges the industry is tackling head on, particularly the control of virus, cavity spot and weeds, according to Holmes. 

“The industry has lost a number of herbicides that have been useful in controlling weeds so there’s been quite a lot of innovation in weed control with technologies like vision guided hoeing,” he explains.

“In terms of cavity spot, there’s ongoing variety development and we are now seeing varieties being released that have greater resistance to the disease.

“However, varieties with this trait are in the early stages of commercial development and so although they’re not commercially available in big volumes, we are very interested going forward.”

In general, Holmes points out that British carrot production is still largely based around a single variety called Nairobi, which is reliable, damage resistant and produces a good yield.

“There are a number of seed breeding companies involved in carrot breeding,” he comments. “And there is quite a wide range of carrot varieties, which all have positive and negative attributes, including Nairobi. 

“British growers aim to supply carrots for 12 months of the year and Nairobi covers most of the bases of requirement. That’s why it’s been very successful. There are producers growing a range of other carrot varieties but Nairobi still dominates.”

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