What miserable weather means for your Christmas vegetables

Some crop yields in Yorkshire were down by a third this year and we have imported more fresh produce than in the previous 10 years. Aisha Iqbal reports.

It has been a bad year for the UK’s fruit and vegetable growers. Supermarkets have even relaxed their rules on the shape and size of the produce they are willing to put on their shelves, and foreign imports of fresh vegetables and fruit are at a 10-year high.

With food prices seemingly going through the roof, and with December 25 approaching, Christmas dinner could be a much leaner affair than usual for some struggling families.

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Guy Poskitt, who owns The Firs farm at Kellington, West Yorkshire, recently named Yorkshire’s 2012 Farmer of the Year, says while an impact on the consumer is “inevitable”, it is also unavoidable.

“Inevitably you are going to see some food inflation,” he says. “But we work very closely with customers to try and balance that up with crop utilisation. We have tried not to get inflation where possible, because people can’t afford it.

“But you have got to remember the price of, for example, cereals is world market price,” he explains.“It’s nothing to do with what’s happening on the outskirts of Leeds. It’s the draught in Argentina or America...not what you see in your own back yard.

“On vegetables which are more locally produced, what you see in the the UK does have a massive effect. But on cereals and grains – the biggest thing we all eat is wheat – it’s a world commodity, driven by world supply and demand. We only produce two per cent of the world’s grain.

“We could have a fantastic harvest and still have high prices, or we could have a terrible harvest and have low prices.”

He said the potato crop – a national staple – had been very poor, and this meant spuds were “going to be expensive, no doubt about that”.

“But, again, quiet a lot of potatoes are coming in from Europe, Holland and Poland, which is helping to stabilise the price, so it isn’t all doom and gloom.”

Mr Poskitt explains that in an average year, he grows 65,000 tonnes of carrots, 8,000 tonnes of potatoes and 10,000 tonnes of ‘combinables’ – wheat, barley and oilseed rape. But after extreme dry and wet periods earlier this year, his potato crop is down almost a third, and his root vegetable yield down by a quarter.

Mr Poskitt grows a lot of vegetables for retail and wholesale, his main client being supermarket giant Asda. He says specifications of what ends up on supermarket shelves might have changed, but not the quality of product.

James Copeland, regional horticulture adviser for the National Farmers’ Union, said it had been “a miserable period” for farmers, but the situation had picked up both regionally and nationally. He hopes this improved outlook will begin to show in consumer pricing.

“We do now have the supply of produce coming through from the UK, but the specifications have been affected,” he says.

“For example, the skin finish on potatoes – the weather does affect how some varieties look. The industry is in the hands of Mother Nature, and farmers are used to tackling these, but it has been a challenging year.”

He said despite the crop yield issues, there were many factors contributing to rising prices, including the cost of haulage and fuel. However a lot of farmers’ contracts had been brought forward – payment ahead of delivery – so they were not necessarily a factor in consumer price rises.

“What we need to make sure of is that if there is to be no increase to the consumer we don’t push it back to the farmer. They need to be able to cover the cost of production...if we start to see (more pressure on farmers), people will not be in business for long.

“It’s a question of trying to balance between retail pressures and the pressures we have got, and trying to work together.”

A spokeswoman for Asda said although there had been challenges in some regions with some growers it was not a national crisis.“We work very closely with our growers, and although we have flexed our specifications on some fruit and vegetables, this will not impact on the quality of the produce we sell. We are working closely with our growers to ensure our customers can buy British as much as possible.”

A spokesman for Morrisons said: “This year has seen some of the worst growing conditions for British farmers in living memory and we are working closely with them to ensure we can still get British crops onto our shelves. In some instances, this means lowering our specifications. We’ll do everything we can to keep costs low for our customers.”