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‘There will be fewer British tomatoes on the shelves’: soaring energy costs force growers to quit

Lee Stiles saw 10 growers leave “London’s salad bowl” last year as they struggled to make ends meet. He expects a similar number in his Lea Valley Growers Association to shut up shop this year, as costly energy bills push them under.

The increase in prices threatens to open up a new front in the salad crisis, which resulted in supermarkets having to limit purchases of items including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers during a cold spell in southern Spain and north Africa in February.


Stiles fears British tomatoes will be late to our baskets this spring, with less choice and higher prices. “There will be fewer British tomatoes on the shelves,” he says.


The National Farmers’ Union has warned that this year there could be the lowest production of British tomatoes since 1985, after hefty rises in the cost of production – including energy to heat and light greenhouses – forced many growers to make cuts, mothball greenhouses or shut down altogether.


Stiles says some growers plan to mothball greenhouses or switch to more lucrative crops such as cucumbers, aubergines or sweet peppers. Usually only about one or two growers move out of the business each year.


He says about half of the group’s growers have yet to plant tomatoes, so their crop will not be harvested for at least three months.


In a typical winter, only about 5% of the tomatoes consumed in the UK are grown in Britain, and this winter it was probably a lot less, as farmers did not want to pay the bills for the lighting and heating required.


In the summer months it can be more than 50%, gradually gearing up from the end of March, but it is still all grown in greenhouses that require heating, mainly with gas, and costs have ballooned since the war in Ukraine began just over a year ago.


The majority of UK tomato producers – who grow under glass but do not rely on artificial lights – are about to start the harvest, somewhat later than usual as most growers delayed planting in order to avoid high energy costs in December and January. Some are only planting now.


“We were hoping for Easter but it has been delayed,” says Richard Diplock, the managing director of the Green House Growers group, which accounts for about a fifth of the tomatoes produced in the UK, with sites in Norfolk, Sussex and Cambridgeshire.


He says a wet, grey March – which meant light levels were almost 40% down on a year before – held things up further, adding about another week to delays.


In February, when supermarket shelves lay empty, the government was accused of bringing the problem on itself by failing to support local growers and through Brexit policies.


Diplock says: “If the British tomato is to have a future we need support from consumers, the supermarkets and government.”


He points out that botanic gardens received government energy support, but not food production. “It clearly is a very energy-intensive industry and they could have helped us. It’s worrying in terms of food security, imports and food miles.”


Despite higher costs, the Green House Growers group has “invested heavily and hopes to carry on but smaller growers might have issues”, Diplock says.


It has switched to cheaper varieties – putting almost a third of production over to round salad tomatoes rather than the premium cherry and on-the-vine types usually grown in the UK – and used technology to cut costs on labour and gas usage as it tries to keep going.


In Norfolk, the group is working with a local water treatment plant to use spare heat from the processes to help heat the greenhouses. Last year in Cambridgeshire, the group used heat exchangers to generate heat from water in a nearby reservoir to help cut bills.


However, Diplock says these projects took a large amount of upfront investment, supplied by outside investors. He would like to do a similar project in Sussex but last year the government ditched the renewable heat incentive scheme that helped attract funding for the earlier projects.


“We need the government to give the go-ahead for an RHI. Clearly, using renewable energy has got to be the way forward. Long-term there is a lot of energy out there from incinerators, reservoirs and other industry but it takes investment,” he says.


The cost of heating is not the only issue: labour costs, plastic packaging and fertiliser have all risen in price. Overall, costs are up by about 30%, led by energy. The prices paid from the supermarkets have not been as much but Diplock admits that in some cases they have risen by at least 10%.


That would not be a surprise because, according to the latest average wholesale prices collected by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a kilogram of round tomatoes costs £3, 14% more than a year ago and more than double the average of the previous three years.


Stiles says: “There probably won’t be shortages as usually the Dutch fill the gap but it depends if the supermarkets are prepared to pay their price or choose empty shelves.”


Diplock says: “We have seen some huge input cost increases and tried to mitigate those as we recognise the cost of living crisis and we still need consumers to buy our tomatoes. We have grown an expensive crop. The worst possible thing would be not to be able to sell it. We can’t put it in storage.”


He says customers can pay about £2 a punnet for premium on-the-vine cherry tomatoes, making them a relatively cheap treat compared with a £3.55 flat white coffee in Pret a Manger.


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