British tomatoes will likely remain scarce until the end of April or even early May, the UK’s largest grower has warned.
It comes after Tesco and Aldi became the latest supermarkets to place limits on some fruit and vegetables customers can buy due to supply shortages.
The soaring cost of energy, and fertiliser also derived from gas, has put growers off planting tomatoes in glasshouses over winter, which require power to light them, said Phil Pearson, group development director at APS Produce.
The delayed start to the growing cycle means it will be another two months before most British tomatoes are ready for picking, he told Sky News during the National Farmers’ Union conference in Birmingham.
This year we have “grown later to try to recover some value because everybody’s been squeezed on prices – not just for energy, but fertiliser, labour, everything has gone up,” he said.
“So instead of starting [harvesting] end of March, it’ll be more like the end of April into May.”
APS Produce, which usually picks 650 million tomatoes a year from 70 hectares, has let some of its glasshouses stand empty during dark winter days to avoid the cost of lighting them.
“And what’ll also happen is everybody will do the same thing, at the same time, instead of the usual staggered planting and harvests. So you’ll go from famine to feasting in one go, just after Easter,” he said.
That will be good news for shoppers, as a glut of supply should bring down prices for the time being. But that means less money for farmers, compounding their struggle to meet costs, he warned.
“Then all of a sudden we’ve got less income through the summer. So then what we do for the following year?” he asked.
More stable prices and government support with “massive” energy costs would help, he said, and welcome the stabilising of wholesale gas and fertiliser prices.
On Tuesday the NFU president Minette Batters told Sky News there was a risk of rationing for tomatoes and other vegetables that require light and heat through the winter such as cucumbers, peppers and leafy salads.
Shortly afterwards, Asda and other retailers announced limits on the purchase of some vegetables due to difficult weather in Spain and north Africa – countries Britain relies on more in winter.
On Wednesday Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey told farmers at the conference “we can’t control the weather in Spain” when confronted on the shortages.
“No, but we can be encouraging these guys to be producing here,” replied Ms Batters, who on Tuesday urged government to extend a business financial support scheme to horticulture and poultry, some of farming’s most energy-intensive industries, which are currently excluded from the package.
Warning for cereals
Meanwhile, one farmer warned a similar problem was brewing for crops with longer growing cycles than the few months needed for many salad vegetables.
Olly Harrison, who grows cereals at Water Lane Farm in Merseyside, said the cost of cooling his rape seed in storage has shot up from around £200 a week to £1,000.
Last year he cut back on fertiliser, but in the end the drought had a worse and greater impact on his yield.
He said energy costs were impacting “straight away on the salad and the veg crops, but when you work it through, we’re going to see it on other commodities as well that have a longer growing cycle, it just hasn’t happened yet”.
“Because people will make a decision: ‘Well, I can’t afford to grow it,’ he told Sky News.
“We either lose money growing them or we lose less money by not producing anything,” he added.
“The recent drought has cost me a lot of money,” he said. “If I get another one, I’ll be like ‘there’s no point’.”
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