Vegetable prices to soar as heatwave blights harvest

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The heatwave which delivered the hottest July on record has caused a disastrous slump in vegetable crops which is expected to send prices soaring, as they did when the 1976 drought hit.

The temperatures - which peaked at 36.3C (97.3F), the highest on record for July in 95 years - have caused many crops, including potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli and spinach, to stop growing and ripen early. Many farmers, accustomed to harvesting over a longer period, have been unable to keep gathering them in, abandoning vast acreage of pea crops. Some grain crops, including winter barley and oats, which need a long growing season, are also delivering low yields because they need a proportion of cool days to fill out.

Vegetables are by far the worst hit, with the UK pea harvest expected to be down by 20 per cent - the equivalent of 30 million fewer 1lb bags of frozen peas - and falls of up to 40 per cent are being forecast for other green vegetables. The shortages are already affecting prices. Wholesale prices for potatoes are 36 per centhigher than this time last year, which is soon expected to affect shop prices. The situation seems likely to worsen unless there is a lotof rain this month, though some predictions suggest more intense heat later in August.

This year's pea harvest is now estimated to be 30,000 tons, a fifth of the expected figure, and the British Potato Council says output will be down by 720,000 tons to 5.28 million, part of a Europe-wide crisis threatening a 30 to 40 per cent slump in the overall crop this year, analysts say.

Onion producers are expecting a fall of 10 to 15 per cent in production, down by 75,000 tons to 400,000. A 35 to 40 per cent slump is predicted for British sprouts and cauliflower and the figure is similar for lettuce, which has been ripening in 16 to 20 days instead of the normal 40.

Alastair Ewan, of the Brassica Growers' Association, which covers broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and brussels sprouts, said shortages across Britain and Europe would start biting in the next two to three weeks, and run through into the autumn. Frank Grantham, an arable and livestock farmer from West Sussex, is among many living in fear that haymaking and harvesting might happen at the same time, leading to severe staff shortages. Though farmers are exempt from hosepipe bans and allowed to set up irrigation systems, many had not needed to do so before and have no infrastructure for such operations. Only 60 per cent of the main crop in the UK is irrigated.

The effect on consumers will be more profound because the shortages cannot be made up by imports from continental Europe, where temperatures have been even higher and yield reductions even more pronounced. Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Hungary have all suffered. In Poland, amid a 40 per cent reduction in the bean harvest, parliament went into recess last week so politicians could pray for rain. The Brussels-based Organisation of European Industries Transporting Fruit and Vegetables has compared the situation to the "catastrophic" 1976 heatwave. In Britain, the Processed Vegetable Growers' Association (PVGA) says pea growers are worst-hit, and some could go out of business.

"The harvesting teams and factories are both struggling to cope," said a spokesman. The PVGA is already in talks with buyers to increase the price of vegetables, a necessary strategy to prevent ruin for some of its members.

Richard Hirst, farmer: 'The plants shut down when it hits 28C'

Standing in a field so waterlogged that he was about to suspend harvesting for 12 hours, Richard Hirst reflected yesterday on the record July temperatures that have reduced his pea crop yield by more than 15 per cent.

The plants simply shut down when the heat hits 28C. "We also had minimal growth in June, which was very dry," said Mr Hirst. "I have never experienced anything like this." The pea crops that Mr Hirst cultivates at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, and supplies to Birds Eye should yield a harvest within 53 days; this year they ripened in just 42. It has meant there is inadequate freezer capacity to take them all. "Some will make animal feed but some of it is of such [low yield] that we just plough it back in."

Since vegetable prices have been in a downward spiral, there is no slack to cushion the effects of the heatwave. "Shop prices will go up," he said.