New Covent Garden produce hanging in there despite extreme UK weather

New Covent Garden produce hanging in there despite extreme UK weather

S. Virani

New Covent Garden Market. It’s one of the largest, most vibrant wholesale produce and flower markets in the UK. It also accurately reflects the state of produce seasonally, offering a clear indication of how weather and other variables concerning the supply chain have affected what’s on offer. Tucked away in Nine Elms, near Vauxhall, the market serves 40 per cent of the fruit and vegetables Londoners eat outside their home, while providing ingredients to a large majority of the city’s top restaurants, hotels, schools and catering businesses. 

A brisk stroll through the market’s 57 acres of aisles reveals vibrant displays of produce from 175 wholesalers, who adhere to a seasonal calendar to ensure quality, vitality and freshness. Regal red tomatoes sit alongside forest-green courgettes, while plump cherries adorn displays.

This summer, walking the floors of the bustling market offered fascinating looks and insights about how the UK’s heatwave — with temperatures in the city and the South East soaring up to 35 degrees at times — is affecting, or not affecting, some produce around the country. After scanning the aisles, Produce Business UK chatted to suppliers and market specialists to understand more. 

The good … and the not-so-good 

At the family-run wholesale fruit and vegetable stand of H.G. Walker Ltd., a wide array of produce is on display.

Ripe red cherries fill baskets. Alongside juicy cherries are fresh and abundant gooseberries, currants, raspberries and blueberries. Most berries are grown with drip irrigation, so the dry heat largely hasn’t affected their growth. Tomatoes and squash, both sun quenchers, also appear strong. “The hot weather has allowed certain produce to sing in the sun,” says Helen Evans, director of business development and communications for New Covent Garden Market. “It’s been one of the best seasons we’ve had for stone fruits.”  

However, while some produce is basking in the heat, other commodities are struggling. According to a report by Swaythorpe Growers, which has 40 family farms in the Yorkshire Wolds and the Vale of York, peas are struggling to grow in pods, with three or four sprouting  at most, rather than the typical six to seven. Peas are reported to be about 20-30 per cent below normal levels, a stunning drop for a UK market that not only boasts the most consumers of peas per head in Europe, but also is the biggest producers of frozen peas. 

The heat, combined with rising demand during summer months, has pushed the lettuce crop in the UK to its limits. Growing leafy greens requires temperatures lower than 30 degrees — and the waves of heat have stagnated supplies and resulted in fewer lettuce heads on shelves.

“Undoubtedly the heat wave has impacted a huge range of crops, which we’ve seen suffer in the drought, but we believe the greatest impact will be felt in the coming months when we see the delayed aftereffects of the scorching summer,” Evans says. “It’s been a very difficult yield, and we’ll see this more in winter. The crops in the ground now haven’t had the water they need at a vital stage in their growth, so carrots and potatoes as well as brassicas will be stunted.” 

That crunch on carrots could be imminent. Though the usual display of orange is still present at the H.G. Walker stand, a crisis could be on the horizon. 

“Fundamentally, the damage has been done to the carrot crop,” says Rodger Hobson, chairman of the British Carrot Growers Association (and owner of Hobson Farming). “It was planted late and then we had the awful spring, and then the driest summer in about 40 years, which resulted in no growth on the carrots. We are growing again now, but we are still short a quarter. My forecast is that I will only be able to produce 70 per cent of what I produced last year. I think that’s fairly typical for the country.”

Hobson predicts the lack of carrots will be most apparent during the Christmas season and that the shortage of British-grown carrots could go well into the summer of 2019, meaning retailers might have to turn to imports. In terms of actual market damage, Hobson reveals that, “Last year, we sold £5 million worth of carrots. This year we will be at 30 per cent less.“ 

Hobson Farming is the UK’s largest grower of carrots for the processing market, producing more than 30,000 tonnes of carrots each year. Britain consumes around 700,000 carrots per  year, compared with 17 million consumed in China. 

‘Broccoli is cooking in the fields’

Potatoes are also suffering from the heat. The shallow-rooted vegetables are highly sensitive to small deficiencies of water in the root area. Because of the dry weather, last month saw a three-week delay in the arrival of Queen potatoes in Ireland, for example. The heat and drought conditions, combined with high demand, have made it a challenging season for spuds. 

Also in short supply at New Covent Garden Market are broccoli and cauliflower. The most severe case of all the vegetables, both broccoli and cauliflower simply have wilted in the heat, resulting in a price spike of British cauliflower by 81 percent and broccoli by 37 per cent, according to the British Growers Association.

“Broccoli is cooking in the fields … farmers can’t get them out of the ground quick enough before the sun yellows them,” says Michael Barrett of H.G. Walker. “We’ve not experienced anything like this in decades.” 

If there is a positive, Hobson notes, “Cauliflower and broccoli are not in a great position, but they have benefited from the fact that demand has been reduced over the hot weather.” 

Fallout from the heat

So, how it is all going to level out?

“People will have to eat less, won’t they?” Hobson says. “We have a very temperate climate, and we produce very temperate climate things. We probably produce the best carrots in the world because we have the best climate for it. But not this year.”

As for other produce benefiting from the heat wave, Hobson says, “Well, not any root vegetables, that’s for sure. However, I’ve read about a British wine grower who has got his best ever crop of grapes and wine, but Britain doesn’t produce very much of that. It’s not really going to help the UK economy very much.”

Barrett of H.G. Walker explains they have been affected severely by pretty much everything this summer, and that they predict things to get worse.

“We’ve not experienced anything like this in decades,” he says. “The prices we expect to see over the next couple of weeks could be nothing compared with what’s in store for autumn if the heat has done the damage growers think. It’s affected just about everything.”


The heat hits price points in the UK

New Covent Garden Market aside, the heatwave subtly has started to affect wholesale prices in the UK.

In a UK government official report that provides the average wholesale price of selected homegrown horticultural produce ­— fruit, vegetables and cut flowers and flowering pot plants at the markets in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and New Spitalfields — there has been a rise in prices of select produce. Round tomatoes are up by from 67p to 70p; cherry tomatoes are up from £1.03p to £1.14; cherries are up from £3.44 to £3.91; and blackberries make a huge leap from £3.49 to £5.48.

Although wholesale prices are fluctuating, the price points in supermarkets haven’t budged much, with farmers agreeing to contracts before the season, and discount supermarkets such as Asda, Morrisons and Aldi keeping their prices low, selling less-than-perfect produce, as well as wonky vegetables, to compensate for the supply shortage.

Global warming and setting new precedents for the future

The UK summer heat wave has been long and harsh. Backtrack to 1976 when a similar heatwave hit the UK. Vegetables were in short supply, prices skyrocketed and the government introduced food subsidies. The price of potatoes rose dramatically, with production down by 40 per cent, and since potatoes were in such high demand, their prices shot up by six times. 

Fast forward to 2018, and are we better prepared now?

For one thing, irrigation techniques have been developed that can offset the driest of weather making a repeat of 1976 practically impossible. Added to that are agri-start ups tackling issues around heat and drought. Finally, the government is taking initiatives to ensure better preparation for the future. For example, last month farmers’ representatives and government officials met to tackle the impact of the prolonged dry weather in The Drought Summit

That said, with the late planting of produce because of a cold spring, there is still much to learn about how to deal with temperature irregularities in general. Structural shifts in terms of planning crop growth will certainly be needed to endure more of the heat to come and to keep New Covent Garden Market thriving. For now, they are just prepared to ride out the season until things cool off for good. 

“The view from our wholesalers is that things will get worse before they get better, and the heat wave will have a prolonged impact on fresh produce, the growers, and the trade,” Evans says.



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