UK watercress harvest underway as planned despite Covid-19

The UK watercress season got underway this week without the annual Alresford Watercress Festival to herald its start having become another casualty of Covid-19.

Despite this and the concerns over lack of labour, the Watercress Company, which grows over 50 acres of the crop, has kicked off the season as planned.

Split between Hampshire and Dorset, watercress is cut every 4-12 weeks and its productive nature enables harvesting of up to six crops a year.

The grower anticipates producing over 600 tonnes of the crop between now and late October, supplying over 4,000 stores around the UK.

And like many growers, the Watercress Company has had to overcome the lack of seasonal labour.

Seasonal employees from overseas, many of whom have worked with the firm for 10 years, have been unable to come due to movement restrictions.

As a result, this year's workers have a range of backgrounds from sport instructor, designer, event electrician and student.

Tom Amery, managing director of the Watercress Company, said he realised early on in the lockdown that the firm was going to have issues with this year's harvest.

But he said furloughed employees from Hampshire and Dorset joined and underwent a period of training.

“We had a 10% drop out in the first couple of weeks but after that everyone else settled in and now appear to be loving it," Mr Amery said.

"For most it’s a complete change from their normal lives, while we haven’t had to train a fresh group of recruits for years, but I think we are learning a lot from each other.”

James Brice, 40, from Sydling St Nicholas, Dorset is one of the new recruits assisting with the harvest and irrigation of the land salad crops.

He said working on the farm was 'very different' from his normal role as a fitness instructor. It also opened his eyes to how food is produced.

“Three months ago I would never have dreamed I would be standing in a watercress bed wearing PPE helping to bring in the harvest.

“I originally saw it as a temporary role, offering to help because I recognised how important it is to harvest our crops, but I have actually found the work complements my own fitness business."

He added: "It’s physically demanding so keeps you in good shape, and I can fit the hours around the zoom sessions I have been doing with clients.

"I’d definitely consider doing it next year to supplement my income.”

The Watercress Company explained that sales in 2020 had started 'slowly' due to several factors, mainly changing shopping habits due to the coronavirus.

In the last 2 weeks, however, there have been signs of a sales uplift, aided in part by the sunny weather but also by an offer at Tesco reducing their 85g bag from £1.30 to 97p.

Tom Amery said the firm were a 'little below' sales compared to last year, but it was making 'ground daily'.

"It’s definitely the weirdest UK season and sales environment I’ve ever experienced but maintaining supply of fruit and veg is vital to the nation’s health.

"Watercress has navigated choppy waters in the past with full uninterrupted supply for the last 120 years, even during the two World Wars.

"We are determined to maintain that record and so far, so good.”

Source: Farming UK