Standing up for horticulture
A phrase I have heard often from farmers and growers recently is that we are in “exceptional times”. The UK horticulture sector is not alone in the challenges that 2022 has thrown at them, but there is no doubt that growers are feeling the bite of soaring costs, shortages of seasonal labour and farm gate prices that look increasingly unsustainable.
The recent report by Sustain on retail pricing and the returns to growers is a sobering reminder of the fragility of the fresh produce supply chain. It stands “on the edge of a precipice”; the profit margin for producers is so low and is so tightly squeezed that any additional pressure could easily tip some over the edge.
Another recent analysis, from the NFU, highlights just how severe the current pressures are: across the sector as a whole, the production costs of horticultural crops has increased by 17% to 27% during 2022, while the returns from retailers have generally not increased at all. Most of those surveyed think that the prospects for 2023 look no better.
Horticulture has always been an inherently risky enterprise and growers have long known how to carry that risk and operate tight, efficient businesses. But when growers begin to feel that they won’t see a return for their work, then something has to give. We are hearing that for some, their uncertainty about the 2023 season is such that they are weighing up tough decisions to reduce their plantings, or switch to less risky crops, or even to reluctantly call it a day.
For organic producers, we can take a little encouragement from the two reports above. Organic is less exposed than a conventional system to some of the massive increases in input prices, one of the three main drivers of production cost inflation in the NFU’s findings. Sustain’s report highlights that while the profit margins on horticultural produce are still very low (and too low) for organic growers, they are notably better than in conventional crop lines, particularly so when selling into local and shorter supply chains.
We are echoing Sustain’s call for the UK Government to invest in better, localised and values-led supply chains to catalyse change for the better in our food system. The value of sustainable, healthy food production needs to be adequately rewarded through the whole supply chain.
Please be assured that the Farming and Land Use team is working hard to ensure that farmer and grower voices are represented and heard, not only across the Soil Association, but also in our work with Defra, and in collaboration with other industry bodies, such as the NFU, the Fruit and Veg Alliance and the Landworkers’ Alliance, and with supply chain representatives.
Evidence from you, on the ground, is vital. We need to hear about what you are experiencing and your views on the priorities and the pressure points. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.