The importance of collaboration for a sustainable future

Cambs Farms Growers Ltd is part of the G’s Growers Group. It is a family-owned business in East Anglia, growing salad and vegetables, with over 60 years’ experience.

Rob Parker is the leafy crops manager, and responsible for over 1,000 ha of their iceberg and little gem crop in the UK, as well as the director of G’s propagation facility. Rob is Chair of the British Leafy Salad Association (BLSA) and sits on the panel for AHDB Field Vegetables, Plant Propagators Ltd and the BLSA R&D committee.

The UK salad sector and the wider farming industry are facing many similar issues, from labour availability to sustainable growing practices. Rob discusses how he believes AHDB is currently best placed to support the industry through some complex challenges ahead.

Accessing labour

The availability of quality labour is one of the biggest challenges facing the whole sector and was accelerated by coronavirus.

At the start of this UK harvest season, we needed workforce numbers, but we critically needed a percentage of experienced ‘returnees’ – people who know how to cut and pack lettuce and could help train other workers. That was a huge challenge this year.

Labour availability and the cost of labour is only going one way. Having a joined-up approach, with AHDB facilitating and driving labour efficiencies and reducing labour inputs through SmartHort, is particularly important at the moment.

The Lean work is critical for smaller businesses who may not have thought this way in the past. We’ve had a Lean programme at G’s for a number of years, but we send our people on the AHDB programme to get them to learn the principles so they can understand and fit into our business ethos.

And while G’s can knock on the door of a robotics company and get interest in building new kit, AHDB can have that effect and drive interest for smaller growers too. They can demonstrate the size of the prize, the value of the technology and build momentum. That also benefits bigger growers and keeps us all up to speed with technological developments.

The Vegebot project by AHDB-funded PhD student Luca Scimeca developed a robotic harvesting system for iceberg lettuce. But this is actually a cross-sector project, as once you have a fundamental system (e.g. for handling delicate vegetables), it can be changed to suit the crop type. Developing that fundamental technology is really important.

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