Source: Alamy 

Many apple growers were facing cuts in payments by retailers, despite massive input cost inflation, said British Apples & Pears

“Unfair” retailer sourcing practices, soaring production costs and unresolved labour challenges are slowly killing the fruit & veg sector, the boss of British Apples & Pears has warned.

Despite the cost of producing apples increasing by 23% over the past year due to rocketing energy, fertiliser and staff costs [NFU/Promar, November 2022], many of the trade body’s members had instead received cuts to the price paid for their produce since last year, BAP chair Ali Capper said.

“Every grower I talk to is angry, they are up in arms about their returns,” Capper added. “And even if they have had an increase [from retailers], it has been in the very low single digits, between 2% and 3%,” she said. “This is a proper crisis.”

These low increases came despite the retail price of many key topfruit lines rising far higher, Capper pointed out, citing hikes “in the high teens” for many SKUs compared to their prices over the past two years – echoing the recent concerns of egg producers.

Low returns were now “endemic” across “all of fresh produce”, she argued, leading many growers to reverse investment plans.

“Decisions made up to four years ago are now being rowed back,” she said. And as a result, “hundreds of thousands” of tree plantings were being cancelled.

The parlous financial situation facing UK growers had been exacerbated by a significant increase in competition from imported apples during October and November, despite what turned out to be a strong harvest at home following this summer’s heatweave, Capper added.

And the produce being imported was generally European Class 2 fruit – due to an abundant harvest of smaller apples on the continent this year.

European apples are generally larger than their UK counterparts due to the preference of continental consumers to cut and share them, rather than eating them whole by hand, she pointed out.

But with a strong harvest of smaller apples from countries such as Poland, the yield would have been attractive to UK retailers, at very competitive prices, she suggested. “So we are competing with apples that are essentially out of spec.”

The response to the sector’s concerns from the mults had been “mixed”, Capper said.

“We need to see retailers demonstrate a greater commitment to British supply. We used to have that, but it now feels like it has turned into trading relationships between growers and retailers.”

Planning for the next growing season also remained difficult due to uncertainty over how many seasonal workers the government would allow into the country next year, Capper said.

Growers had been unable to recruit staff since October, she said – and given the need to source staff from further afield following Brexit, productivity had fallen significantly.

“The market is not working,” Capper summed up, while calling on retailers to adhere to Groceries Code Adjudicator rules, outlined earlier this year, to better respect the challenges faced by producers seeing rising costs. 

Greater commitments to British sourcing, via better labelling to ensure transparency, were also urgently needed, she added.

It comes as former M15 director general Baroness Manningham-Buller told an NFU lecture this week that the UK’s food security was an integral part of the country’s national security, and needed to be urgently addressed in light of the financial plight faced by farmers and producers across many sectors.

“British farmers are under immense pressure. The doubling of fertiliser prices, soaring energy costs, shortages of seasonal workers and apprehension about trade deals are all impacting the farmers that produce our food and we urgently need policy to address this,” she said.

“Unless we pay serious and thorough attention to our food security, we risk being increasingly subject to global shocks. We need to acknowledge that we should produce as much of our own food as possible and to be able to export what we can, both for growth in the UK economy and to help feed the world.”