Cherry growers have warned much of this year’s bumper UK harvest could go to waste due to a lack of support from UK supermarkets.
The 2022 UK cherry crop is expected to top 6,000 tonnes, a 40% increase on 2021 harvest levels, according to industry body Love Fresh Cherries, the representative body for British and imported cherries in the UK.
It said the rise in volumes had been driven by this year’s dry and hot weather, which led to an earlier and more bountiful harvest of the summer fruit. However, with a similar situation also seen in Europe, there is concern among growers that cheaper imported fruit is being prioritised by the mults.
Sales of fresh produce soared in the recent heatwave, with prepared salads up 18% and prepared fruit up 14% [Nielsen 4 w/e 16 July]. But despite general increases in sales, demand for cherries had been muted and UK growers were not getting a fair share of the crop’s bumper yields, one major supplier told The Grocer.
“Regrettably, there has been a collision between the UK season arriving three weeks early and a longer than typically contracted imports season – resulting in significant challenges for growers in selling crops at sustainable values,” they said.
“Overall retail demand has also been suppressed,” they added, pointing to a change in buying behaviours driven by wider inflation. And this had “only added to the pressure on UK producers”.
Coupled with cost differences on imported crops and suppressed demand “there appeared to be a movement away from prioritising domestic production in favour of profit enhancing Spanish supply”, added the supplier.
The claims follow warnings, reported by The Grocer earlier this month, that some retailers were rationalising fresh fruit & veg lines to focus on cheaper and less labour-intensive imported produce.
Lee Stiles, secretary of the Lea Valley Growers Association told The Grocer at the time that retailers were considering cutting SKUs for anything that might require additional manpower and was more expensive to produce.
Stiles warned that in the long-term, growers would restrict what they grew which would lead to a rise in imported produce. “If they do decide to increase their lines at any time, then a lot of the processing will probably be done abroad where they don’t have the same labour issues as we do,” said Stiles. “So, I would imagine that British growers will stick to a much-reduced offering.”
Tesco, however, made a public commitment to support UK cherry growers, last week pledging to sell 1kg boxes of UK cherries at a reduced cost of £7.50. Many supermarkets, including Asda and Sainsbury’s, have also been reducing cherry prices, though it is not clear if these cuts are for UK or imported cherries due to the mixed sourcing of the fruit.
It comes as growers were this week braced for further challenges as the Environment Agency warned the UK faced a drought announcement in August.
The EA convened the National Drought Group, made up of senior decision makers and industry stakeholders, to agree actions to protect water resources and the UK environment in the weeks ahead.
Most of England was now in ‘Prolonged Dry Weather’ status, the EA warned – meaning it was taking precautionary action to conserve water use and mitigate impacts as water conditions deteriorated.
“As we continue to see extremely high demand, we are urging everyone to carefully consider the amount they are using given the unprecedented conditions,” said Stuart Colville, Water UK’s director of policy.
“The water industry is running a national water saving campaign called Water’s Worth Saving that provides the public with helpful hints and tips on how to do their bit with water use in the home and garden.”
Drought will cause issues throughout the food chain with concerns from cereals growers that continued dry period will make fires more frequent.
“Because everything is bone dry then fires can become out of control very quickly, and that is not going to go away until we get significant moisture,” said Matt Culley, crops board chair at the NFU.
He said that trying to prevent fires was adding significant costs to growers which would not be resolved without rainfall.
Drought fears are also causing issues with planting, Philip Dolbear senior knowledge exchange manager (cereals & oilseeds) at the AHDB said many cereals growers were putting off planting due to how hard and dry the soil is. This could have an impact later in the year.