Yorkshire's rhubarb crop crumbles in mild winter


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The Independent Online

The heat is on growers of Yorkshire's world famous rhubarb as the mild winter threatens a crisis in the crop.

Production is being hampered by a lack of frost which is vital to energise the roots and ensure healthy growth of the plants in sheds away from natural sunlight.

In 2010 Yorkshire forced rhubarb joined brands such as Parma ham and the Cornish pasty in being awarded protected name status by the EU.

Janet Oldroyd-Hulme, of E Oldroyd & Son, in West Yorkshire's Rhubarb Triangle, said there was nothing they could do, other than turn up the thermostats in the sheds in the hope extra warmth would do the trick.

Normally, the Rhubarb Triangle is comfortably located in a "Frost Pocket" where clear days and cold nights ensure regular frost on the ground in the mornings.

But this year's combination of milder weather and constant rain has failed to provide the necessary conditions that allow the roots to store energy.

This is essential before the plants – lovingly tended for two years before being "forced" into ripening – are placed in candle-lit sheds.

Foreign rivals have a "quick fix" to the problem that involves applying an acid to the roots. But Ms Oldroyd-Hulme said the Yorkshire growers were determined to stick to the traditional method developed over the centuries which is unique to Yorkshire.

"In Holland they apply acid to the roots to make them respond without the same amount of cold," she said. "But that produces a rhubarb which is paler and does not have as much flavour. We fought for six years for protected name status to put us on an equal footing in Europe with Parma ham and champagne. We are not prepared to lose that exclusivity we are famous for."

Although rhubarb, originally a Siberian plant, grows best by the banks of the Volga in Russia, it has been cultivated successfully in Yorkshire since the early 1800s.

However, the dwindling number of companies involved fear the industry will struggle without more action to tackle climate change – leaving the market wide open for Dutch and German competitors.

Growers are weathering the crisis but the pressure is on to provide a healthy crop in the countdown to the annual rhubarb festival in Wakefield on 24 -26 February which is being expanded because of demand for the delicacy, regarded as more tender than the outdoor variety grown over summer.