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Supermarkets agree to accept smaller veg from rain-soaked UK farms

Supermarkets are agreeing to accept smaller than usual cauliflowers, sprouts, cabbages and leeks as farmers struggle to cope with poor weather and flooding around the UK.

The move to keep fresh British produce on the shelves comes after heavy rainfall and subsequent flooding, which started in late autumn and continued through Christmas and the new year, affecting growers mainly in Lincolnshire, East Anglia, Cornwall and Scotland.


Poor weather and higher costs of fertiliser, energy and labour have all contributed to higher prices and tight supplies of many vegetables in the UK. The price of carrots and brussels sprouts was up by more than 150% year on year and potatoes by 45% before supermarkets brought in special Christmas discounts.


Farmers have predicted there could be shortages in the spring after fields were washed out and the cost of heating greenhouses has meant many growers have delayed planting. The British potato crop was expected to hit its lowest ever level at 4.1m tonnes.


Supplies of salad crops, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and aubergines, may also be affected as British growers said they had delayed planting because the high cost of energy was not being covered by supermarkets.


“Cold weather means burning more gas, and low light levels mean plants grow more slowly. The price we are getting is still not enough to plant early,” said Lee Stiles, the secretary of the Lea Valley Growers’ Association, an area known as London’s “salad bowl”.


Last year supermarkets were forced to ration some salad ingredients amid gaps on shelves as glasshouse-grown crops from the UK and the Netherlands were in short supply and Spanish crops were hit by droughts.


One of the biggest growers of winter vegetables in Lincolnshire, TH Clements, said it had only had a handful of dry days since October, which had made harvesting extremely difficult.

John Moulding, the commercial director of TH Clements, said: “This is the worst flooding we have had this century and we have lost about 20% of our total winter crops, including sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower and leaks. It’s been a very tough time for us for more than three months, both physically and financially in having to pull the vegetables out of the muddy fields.


He said flexibility from Tesco had allowed the company to get more products on to shelves. “We have literally had to race against the clock to get the vegetables pulled out of the ground to stop them from rotting.”


This week Ken Murphy, the chief executive of Tesco, said the supermarket had worked with growers in Scotland to help keep sprouts on the shelf before Christmas by agreeing that the crop could be harvested slightly earlier than planned.


It meant the sprouts were slightly smaller than usual but gave time for them to be dried by using cool air blowers to blow the water off them in their storage pallets.


Tom Mackintosh, the fresh produce and horticulture director at Tesco, said: “By accepting slightly smaller sprouts, cauliflower, cabbages and leeks, we can support the fresh produce industry while ensuring that customers are able to continue to buy British winter vegetables.”


A spokesperson for Morrisons said: “The recent weather has clearly been very challenging for the UK farming industry and to support our growing partners we have made adjustments to specifications to allow cosmetic blemishes that do not detract from quality. These specification changes ensure both availability of our excellent British vegetables such as sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, greens and onions as well as a fair return to UK farmers.”


The company added that its “wonky veg” range of 10 products that did not meet typical supermarket standards including carrots, parsnips and potatoes, sold 36m packs a year, with sales up by more than 10% on last year.


Sainsbury’s said it was also accepting vegetables, including sprouts, onions, potatoes and cabbages that may be under- or oversized, or slightly misshapen, in order to avoid food waste.


Martin Emmett, the National Farmers’ Union’s horticulture and potatoes board chair, said: “The recent poor weather, flooding and heavy rain has disrupted the growth and harvesting of some vegetable crops, such as potatoes, since land became waterlogged or flooded.


“We have no expectations of shortages currently, but it remains important that we make the best of what’s available, with supermarkets offering flexibility to growers when it comes to crop specification. In doing so, the food chain from farm to plate will avoid unnecessary food waste.”



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