Storms devastate harvest and threaten price rises

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The Independent Online

Vegetable growers are suffering the worst season they have known because of the recent rains, with major losses in some crops expected to drive up prices.

Britain's harvest of peas, the biggest in Europe, has been devastated by the weather, with as much as 50,000 tonnes of the annual crop of 150,000 tonnes expected to be lost. Some individual farmers may lose 70 per cent of their harvest.

But the soft fruit crop, mainly of strawberries and raspberries, has been largely protected from the damaging downpours by the extensive use of polythene tunnels, an agricultural development that has upset many people as it spread across the countryside in the past 15 years.

Vegetable growers in eastern Britain, from Norfolk to Scotland have been hardest hit, with losses especially concentrated in Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire.

"The situation is absolutely diabolical," said Martin Riggall, chief executive of the Processed Vegetable Growers' Association. "Some of the most productive areas have been absolutely devastated by the rain. They look like a First World War battlefield. We have never seen a growing season like this."

The rain has badly disrupted the planting regime for brassicas - cabbages, cauliflowers and sprouts, for harvest in the early autumn - but its most ruinous effect has been on the massive crop of peas which go for freezing. The rains and flooding have come in the middle of the harvest, which is an extremely sensitive operation. The peas in any given field will only be at their best for a short time "window" which may be only 12 hours, so they are planted and harvested with military precision. But the waterlogging of the fields has meant that in numerous cases these windows have been missed, and any pea plant whose roots are under water for more than a few hours will die.

The resultant losses have been unprecedented. "I would say between a quarter and a third of the national crop has been lost," said Philip Hudson, horticultural adviser to the National Farmers' Union.

The NFU and other bodies think the coming shortage will mean prices will rise, but are concerned that any price hike should provide some benefit to the growers who are bearing the losses.

"Last year the pea harvest was also affected - although then it was because of the heat - but although prices went up, the growers did not see any of the rise," said Mr Riggall. "The trouble is, many growers are on fixed-price contracts, and if there is a price increase we really need to see some of it come back down the supply chain to the growers, or they will be in real difficulty."

By contrast, the £350m harvest of soft summer fruit - mainly strawberries, but also raspberries, blueberries and gooseberries - has been largely protected by the widespread use of polytunnels, which have sheltered the plants from the rain.

"It's the worst season we've ever seen but the polytunnels have saved the harvest," said Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, the growers' trade organisation.

Polytunnels, brought to Britain from Spain from 1993 onwards, have extended the soft-fruit growing season from six-weeks to six months, but some environmental campaigners consider them blots on the landscape. In an important case last December the High Court ruled that farmers must get planning permission before they can install polytunnels.