Vegetable prices soar in big freeze

BRITAIN'S vegetable farmers are using power drills and sledgehammers to hack their produce out of the frozen ground as supermarkets struggle to fill shelves during the cold spell.

Leeks, cabbages, cauliflowers, sprouts, spring greens and broccoli are all in short supply.

In Somerset, farmer Eric Greenham has used a drill attached to a small generator to uproot his crops of leeks, carrots, parsnips and swedes. "The ground is like concrete. I've never known anything like it in all my years of farming", he said.

With supplies so short, prices have shot up. Leeks are selling at up to pounds 1.20 a pound and cabbages are up to 65p each. Before Christmas they were as little as 39p and 59p respectively. Cauliflowers are up from between 59p and 69p before Christmas to between 75p and pounds 1.20 now.

Ben Summerfield, operations director for David Lang Mead, a company in Petworth, West Sussex, has invented a tool which drags under the frosted surface and lifts up 10-inch slabs of earth containing leeks. Yet he can still only produce just half a tonne a day, rather than the usual five.

"We're struggling like hell," he said. "Being near the south coast we are usually fairly frost-free, but the weather conditions recently have been quite stunning. The frost has got to 10 inches deep and the leeks are rock solid. We use a sledgehammer to get them out, then thaw them in front of a gas heater."

Supplies from warmer European countries have also been badly hit. Temperatures in Holland have plunged to minus 17C and in Spain fields have been devastated by floods.