The first day of November heralds the start of the British Leek season. To kick things off before the season, The British Leek Growers' Association, Nunhems Seeds and the University of Warwick will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the discovery of hybrid leeks Wednesday at the University of Warwick.
The discovery of male sterility in leeks in 1993 is said to have led to the development of the hybrid leek, moving away from open pollination and transforming commercial leek production forever, according to an official statement by The British Leek Growers' Association. Now comprising 99 per cent of the market, the leeks have totally transformed farming methods, product development and public consumption, as well as modern farming practices worldwide.
The advantages of the hybrid breeding programme has brought improved yields, better uniformity and greater resistance to pests and diseases. What’s more, the hybrid leek has resulted in the creation of new products, such as pre-packaged leeks, which is said to be only possible with a highly uniform crop.
The event, being held at Warwick’s Wellesbourne Campus, will bring together Dr. Brian Smith, research leader in plant genetics and biotechnology at HRI — which first discovered the male sterility of leeks — and Toon Van Doormalen, plant breeder for BASF Vegetable Seeds, also the first commercial breeder of hybrid varieties. The event, and the 25th anniversary mark an important link between academia and commercial production.
"The discovery of male sterility in leeks was a pivotal point in developing hybrid varieties and transforming commercial leek production," Dr. Rosemary Collier of the Warwick Crop Centre, University of Warwick, tells Produce Business UK. “Leeks are a vegetable staple in households across the globe and important to the British economy. Applied crop research at the University of Warwick continues, with the aim to make breakthroughs and improvements which will be advantageous to the commercial sector and also bring consumers a reliable supply of safe, healthy and nutritious food.”
Produce Business UK also chatted with former chairman of The British Leek Growers' Association, Patrick Allpress of Allpress Farms, to get an inside look at what challenges the leek industry has faced recently, as well as some foresights about where the industry is going.
Allpress Farms, a family business in Chatteris Cambridgeshire, harvests approximately 1,000 acres of leeks, producing 7,500 tonnes of the crop each year, both on owned and tenanted land in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. The farm supplies leeks to some of the UK’s leading retailers, including Sainsburys and the Co-op and grows a range of varieties, including Easton and Lampton for Prepack leeks and Volta, Striker, Roxton, Megaton Shelton, Belton, Harston and Triton for loose leeks.
British leek season is about to commence, but when does the pulling of leeks actually start?
"We start pulling leeks in July, but the main part of the season is in the autumn and winter. We commence our annual PR and marketing campaign with a focus on 1st November as the nominal season launch.”
What have been some of the issues for growers this year?
“There have been plenty of issues to deal with this year. The cold, wet spring delayed sowing and planting by around four weeks. This late growing season affected the early crop and led to a shorter season, making yields lower at the moment. Things were then made worse by the hot summer. When temperatures reached over 30C, growth shut down. Pressure on irrigation was high across all crops. The hot and dry conditions also meant it was also one of the worse seasons for thrip. Essentially from all this, the market is short of crop.”
In terms of packaging, many UK retailers are now unwrapping various produce and selling them without the plastic? Is this something you envision could happen with leeks?
“This is not something our customers have approached us about yet and with the market so low it is unlikely to be on the table in the short term, although it is likely to be on the agenda in the future.”
What about new snack alternatives with leeks? Could you envision something like baked leeks, similar to what has been created with kale?
“This is not something we’re looking at currently. We grow a range of leeks from baby, to organic, loose and pre-packed.”
Are there any new innovations in the way that leeks are eaten, or any new discoveries about leeks?
“We’re keen to push the pre-biotic benefits of eating leeks. Recent research has shown that leeks offer one of the best sources of inulin, a natural pre-biotic. There is currently a lot of discussion around the importance of gut health, and we are keen to join the conversation.”
Are there any real threats to the harvest of leeks that you foresee?
“Reduction in the availability of labour is an issue and something we’re already experiencing. In particular, shortages of more skilled labour.”
Would you say that agri-innovations could present some growth curves in the harvest?
“There is ongoing research and development in varieties and discussions around mechanisation, although this is at a very early stage and not financially viable at the moment, particularly given the uncertainty within agriculture generally.”
On average, what is the export rate of leeks per year, and the national average consumption of leeks per year?
“Very little is exported; we grow enough for the UK market. I would estimate the UK market to be around 40,000 tonnes each year.”
Have any shifts in the market affected this in recent years?
“This year, the Dutch market has grown 10 per cent less leeks than in previous year, while their yields are down by 20 per cent (because of weather issues, as in the UK).”
What does the future hold for your farm?
“I hope to develop new customer and partnership arrangements. I am also exploring ways in which to evolve the cultivation methods used on the farm, moving away from conventional farming and embracing organic techniques.”
Inside the Leek Growers' Association
The British Leek Growers' Association itself was established in 1985 to represent the interests of the UK’s Leek Growers. Its members comply with the Red Tractor Farm Assurance Scheme, a world leading farm and food assurance scheme that provides traceable and safe food. It also sets strict benchmarks for all aspects of food production ranging from the use of fertilisers, to packing, staff handling of produce as well as health and safety procedures..
The Leek Growers' Association is also a member of British Growers, which provides a direct link to Defra, the government department responsible for environmental protection, food production and standards, agriculture, fisheries and rural communities in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Defra leads for Britain within the European Union on agricultural, fisheries and environment matters and in other international negotiations on sustainable development and climate change, so the connection to The British Leek Growers' Association means there is clear path of communication regarding food standards and development.
Finally, The Leek Growers' Association is also responsible for influencing the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) working closely with them to determine future research and development priorities. AHDB is set up to equip farmers and growers to make better decisions and improve their performance, by providing them with practical know-how.