Produce: Mushroom firms bruised by imports Many growers are holding their own but these are dark days for the province's major mushroom industry says David Shapley Ulster's vegetable growers have the potential to supply the multiples with far more crops, according to Wesley Aston, commodities director of the Ulster Farmers' Union. "Our members have come to terms with meeting the additional disciplines associated with good agricultural practice from field to packhouse by making some substantial investments," says Aston. "So far it has paid off, and should create the scope to achieve more." Just how much more is debatable. Ulster's vegetable growers have been able to compete technically against crops which can be brought across from the major production areas of East Anglia. But there is clearly a roof on consumption. Robin McKee, chairman of the UFU vegetable committee, believes the multiples' strategy of reducing their supplier base will ultimately lead to fewer packhouses in general. Four currently grade and prepack Northern Irish carrots, parsnips, swedes, cabbage, cauliflower and leeks. Field crops may be holding their own but the current forecast for other sectors looks bleak, with mushroom production reaching crisis point. Over 15 boom years this industry has become a major contributor to agriculture exports to the UK mainland. During this time the industry has achieved enviable proportions producing high quality cups, flats and more recently niche market chestnut mushrooms, as well as some shitake, with an overall value of more than £29m. But now many producers say they are being crippled by the effects of the strong pound sucking in highly competitive imports from the Republic of Ireland and Holland. According to Dutch statistics, shipments of mushrooms to the UK rose 50% last year to reach 1,500 tonnes. Northern Ireland's industry is based on the "satellite system" supporting small growers responsible for their own often tiny production unit. In turn they supply an independent exporter/distributor based in a central packhouse that usually provides them with ready mixed bagged compost to grow the crop. "The currency effect has been disastrous," says Eddie Daly, chairman of the UFU mushroom committee, which represents some two thirds of Northern Ireland's growers ­ the bulk of the industry. "We are simply being priced out of the market by cheaper crops." Kiernan Hughes, director of S Hughes, the region's largest producer, has seen his output drop by around a third in the last year. "Dutch produce can be imported to the UK at around 64p/lb ­ which is less than our cost of production," he said. Another supplier, Mourne Mushrooms Marketing, which produces around 300,000lb per week, is also feeling the pinch, says Gordon Orr, its marketing consultant. The company was set up three years ago with grant aid to become a producer organisation supporting 80 growers. With the future of MMM tied to the UK, last February it exhibited in London to attract catering business and won new customers. The region's other mushroom supplier, Monaghan Middlebrook, a large and growing company that also has substantial farms in the Republic and on the mainland, produces around two million lbs annually through its subsidiary Keirnans. Marketing manager Catherine Gray agrees that times are hard. "But English growers are having the same problems," she adds. Other fruit and vegetable producers are also having to adapt. Northern Ireland has a long history of culinary fruit growing, based on Bramleys mainly from Armagh. The industry even received a boost with an EU planting grant which increased acreage. Chairman of the UFU fruit committee Richard Johnston says that many of the 30 year old orchards are now too old, although several were replaced in the mid 1990s when cattle producers looked for alternative sources of income and the prices for Bramleys were high. Since then, profitability has been hit with severe frosts in 1998 reducing yields by three quarters, followed by a glut last year. "This has meant the apple industry is far more focused on serving the processed market with sliced and diced apple, and there has been some success," says Johnston. "The long-term outcome for pulp and juice is far more difficult to read because of current overproduction on world markets." {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}