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Onion grower hit by eye-watering rises in storage costs

A Suffolk potato and onion grower is facing eye-watering costs to dry and store his harvested vegetables over winter.

Woodbridge farmer James Foskett has to cure his onions and some will be stored for many months - but costs have gone through the roof as energy prices soar.


Storage costs have leapt up from about £16/t to what he is estimating will be something in the region of £90-95/t - and he is expecting to harvest around 8,000 tonnes of onions this year. This would take him from £128k to £720k-plus.


"Some of the onions we store through to June next year," he explains. The onions must be cured which takes a lot of energy, he says.


James grows about 50 acres of seed potatoes. His potato storage costs will also see big increases from about about £30/t to £80-90/t for these. "So the energy charges will really start to bite," he says. "There's slightly less energy used in storing potatoes and we don't store them as long," he says. Most will go in January to February.


Harvest this year was hit by the heatwave, but he enjoyed a "reasonably good" cereal crop. Yields for these came in at average or slightly above average - depending on how much water was available to them.


But his sizeable vegetable operation took a hit from the summer heatwave as sweltering temperatures wreaked havoc with his crops - and forced him to make heavy use of his irrigation network.


By this week, he had harvested about 65% of his onions . "We have actually had 24mm of rain in the last week over five days," he says. But this compares to just 1mm in July and the same in August. The September rain has been very welcome, he says. "The weather looks set fair for the next week so we'll pick up the last 100 acres."


He is looking at yields of 65-70t/ha - but that is with about 12-14mm of irrigation. "Some of the other farms where we have not had as much irrigation yields are down to 35-40t/ha and size is small as well. Our overall average for the season is 50-55t/ha for green onions which is a bit disappointing in a way because there'll be a lot of small onions which don't have as much value." The onions will los 15% in weight when they go into storage and get dried, he explains.


So all-in-all onion yields will be below average and quality may be affected by heat stress during their growing period. Stress makes the crop vulnerable to fungal disease such as fusarium.


His seed potato harvest has been hit by the heatwave. "There's no irrigation in those places. We take a gamble and we plant them without irrigation." As a result yields have taken a hit. He budgets on 12t/ha but is looking at around just 7t/ha.


His ware potatoes - which go off to be packed and sold - have fared better. "Actually, they have not been too bad. As long as we put enough water on we have had pretty good yields and quality. But we are fixed into contracts organised last November."


It's been difficult to harvest the potatoes as the drought has hardened the soil, which needs to be soft in order to prevent the crop being damaged. "We have got one farm where we finished the water at the beginning of August and we can't get the potatoes out of the ground," he says.


"We are harvesting like made now because we have had the rain so we can physically get them out of the ground." But they could have been out a month ago with irrigation - which showed the value of having it, he says. It's an issue they are "constantly thinking about".


The drought means the crops are potentially prey to a number of pests and diseases including wireworm and black dot - and sunburn.


The price of vegetables has not really changed, he says. "Other things have big time but it's going to have to happen," he says. "The next round of negotiations for next year's crop is going to see huge inflation. It's going to be crunch time."


Maize for his anaerobic digester plant has been "a bit of a disaster" after being hit by the heat. Yields were looking "pretty diabolical". Meanwhile, he wasn't looking at a bumper sugar beet harvest after they were also hit by the weather.


There has been no price increase for his organic crops but sales of organic produce is down by about quarter, he says. "I think people are being a bit more thrifty on what they buy." But organic is just 3% of the market, and therefore not highly significant, he adds.


This year he has lost some of his organic crop due to the intense heat. His radish and green beans grew too quickly, while he has let his carrots and beetroot grow more to go into a slightly different market.


He is currently drilling cover crops of rye and vetch on his organic land and is due to start in the next week or so on his cereals where he has had potatoes and onions. But there are still challenges. "Some of the land is like concrete. It's very hard. There's no moisture down there. The rain has been a bit of a godsend."


Price talks on crops will be crucial this year. He won't be growing some of his vegetables without a 20% uplift next year because of the inflation in costs he is facing across a range of inputs including his red diesel, now at about 105p/litre, energy, fertiliser and wages.


Because of these, his margins are tight. "I think if we break even I'll be happy," he says. "Overall we won't have a very good year at all because of the increase in costs and because of the irrigation costs, apart from anything else."


"People have got to eat. They need food and they don't want to see it all imported. Ultimately the supermarkets are going to have to come to the table a bit and make sure farmers are looked after."




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