Farms find market for 'exotic' vegetables

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(First Edition)

BRITISH farmers are selling lettuces and artichokes to the Italians, the farming equivalent of coals to Newcastle, and they are even selling cauliflowers and onions to the Dutch and Belgians, one of the toughest markets for vegetables in Europe.

There are big opportunities for British farmers and growers in competing with continental producers in growing vegetables such as courgettes and asparagus which used to be considered exotic in Britain, the Oxford Farming Conference was told yesterday by Michael Paske, a vegetable grower.

Mr Paske who farms 25 acres on his own account and another 400 acres under contract, has been successful in selling asparagus and artichokes in Britain and on the Continent.

'The market for lettuces increases dramatically in the Mediterranean area in August and September when many people are on holiday there,' he said. 'But this is a time when excessive heat and water shortages cut local vegetable supplies. We sent 300 tonnes of lettuces to Italy last year. Other British suppliers sent a lot more.'

Mr Paske also sells cauliflowers and globe artichokes to Italy. There is a short period around Easter when it is warm in Britain but still cold in Italy and British cauliflowers have the advantage. But growing 'continental' vegetables for sale in Britain has been Mr Paske's most profitable line.

Britain imports hundreds of tonnes a week of courgettes, artichokes and asparagus from the Continent when these vegetables can be grown readily in England. During the height of the season courgettes remain unpicked on English farms while they are imported from the Continent.

Mr Paske said the problem was that British farmers were often not working on a large enough scale. Also a large portion of the crop might be wasted because British supermarkets specify size and quality strictly. When asparagus was first sold in Britain, supermarkets thought customers only wanted large shoots which can be coarse. They have found customers value thinner shoots as well.

Exports to the Continent can be more profitable, or be sold at a lower price, because buyers there are prepared to take a wider range of size and to accept innocent blemishes on fruit and vegetables.

Food is a significant contributor to Britain's trade gap. In 1991 the UK current account deficit was pounds 5.8bn; the deficit on food and drink was pounds 5.5bn, equivalent to 92 per cent of the total gap. More than half this deficit is produced by countries in northern Europe with a climate similar to Britain.