Multiple glasshouses owned by tomato grower APS Group were left empty last year, for the first time in the business’s 80-year history.
The current shortages of tomatoes and other salad crops on British supermarket shelves have unfortunately come as no surprise to Philip Pearson, development director at the UK’s largest tomato producer.
“We did say, as an industry, last year: ‘If you don’t support us through the winter you will have empty shelves,’” Pearson says. “Government didn’t listen, our customers didn’t listen, nobody listened.
“I don’t want to sound ‘I told you so,’ as that doesn’t help anybody, but we are where we were worried we would end up.”
The combination of soaring energy bills to provide artificial light to help the plants grow, especially during the winter, combined with associated surges in the price of fertiliser and the cost of packaging prompted many British producers and their European counterparts to take the decision to plant fewer crops this winter.
APS chose to leave about 8% of the glasshouses across its 70-hectare estate empty for the first time since the family-owned business was founded by Philip’s grandfather Albert Pearson, who started off with a single nursery in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, in 1949.
The company decided it could not afford to run the LED lights in its glasshouses required to grow a winter tomato crop, which is traditionally sown in August and harvested from Christmas until July.
“We have only ever gone forwards, never gone backwards,” Pearson said. “But I think it was the right decision. It would have had a much more negative impact on the business had we not done that.”
At the time, rising energy costs had been sent soaring to near-record highs by the conflict in Ukraine. Pearson said these “unbudgeted” costs came at the worst possible time for producers, the start of their growing season.
“We couldn’t recover the costs at the retail level, because the retailers couldn’t recover it from the consumer, because the consumer was under pressure as well because of the cost of living crisis.”
About 160 tomato varieties – from cherry to beefsteak – are grown by APS across its six UK sites stretching from Middlesbrough to the Isle of Wight, producing an estimated 650m tomatoes each year.
Supplying all of the UK’s largest retailers, as well as vegetable box companies, the company is responsible for just under a third (30%) of all UK tomato production.
APS also imports tomatoes from countries such as Morocco to fill the gaps during the winter.
However, there has been a smaller harvest because of cold weather in north Africa, at a time of lower British and European winter production. Combined with other factors such as a tomato virus which damages and kills plants, demand for Spanish and Moroccan crops has far outstripped supply.
Adding to the challenges, APS will not be able to start picking its tomatoes for another six to eight weeks, later than usual, after the company delayed some planting because of economic uncertainty.
In the face of the cost of living crisis, the company is not growing the highest value sweet cherry tomato varieties this year, as these are also more expensive to cultivate. Instead, it has diversified the business, planting higher quantities of other crops such as cucumbers, aubergines and peppers.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has called on government to support intensive users, such as tomato and salad growers, with energy bills. The NFU president, Minette Batters, has criticised how botanical gardens receive support with energy bills for their glasshouses, but food producers with greenhouses do not.
Brexit has also added cost to operations, predominantly through the additional cost of employing seasonal workers. In 2022, companies were required to pay workers coming to the UK on the post-Brexit seasonal worker scheme from overseas an additional 60p an hour on top of the government’s national minimum wage, a decision which Pearson said cost the company “millions” more.
However, the farming minister, Mark Spencer, informed delegates at the NFU on Tuesday that this year growers would only be required to pay workers the national minimum wage.
The length of stay permitted for workers on the post-Brexit seasonal scheme has also proved challenging for tomato businesses with a nine-month season, during which time they require an additional 1,250 people on top of about 750 full-time employees.
Under post-Brexit visa rules, seasonal workers are only allowed to stay for six months at a time, meaning two cohorts of staff are required.
“What that means to us is I now have to train everybody twice. I have to use my best people to train the new people, so my productivity at the peak of the season is really struggling,” Pearson said, adding this was true for the whole industry.
Technology is unlikely to replace pickers any time soon. APS is working on developing a robotic hand, but estimates it is still about five years away from being rolled out.
For now, Pearson has a stark warning for British shoppers: “The consumer has to realise they have to pay more for food. Food is far, far too cheap, I’m afraid,” he said.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but as an industry, we can’t absorb it any more.”
He believes that government, retailers and consumers all need to work to support the domestic industry.
“I want to have product to sell; if I haven’t got any product, I can’t sell it, I don’t take any money. Nobody is benefiting from this, the consumer hasn’t got any product, everybody loses.”