David Shapley
Fear of a potentially devastating disease is concerning English asparagus growers prior to the start of this year's season.
Phytophthora rot can radically reduce yield and produces misshapen spears. First discovered in California and then New Zealand, where yield was slashed in half, sporadic outbreaks in the UK meant the disease could have a serious impact here, delegates at the Asparagus Growers' Association annual conference were told.
Dr Kim Green said: "The effects should not be underestimated. The outbreak could eventually reach epidemic proportions." A recent crop survey showed the rot was present in at least half the members' farms, representing about 70% of production.
However, the dry early spring may have offered some protection as the rot tended to occur in wet conditions. The association has applied to the Pesticides Safety Directorate for off-label approval of a fungicide which would appear to offer a level of control.
Growing customer demand has also resulted in an increase in production, and that demand is set to be further stimulated with the launch of a PR campaign, funded by one of the UK's largest producers Bomfords along with distributor Macks.
Mark Haynes, Bomfords sales and marketing director, called on other traders to contribute financially next year.
AGA chairman Victor Aveling said with year-round imports there was a need to retain asparagus' seasonal appeal and British identity, a view shared by Phillip Symons, chief vegetable buyer at M&S. He said it was his company's target to only stock the national crop during the season. Both bundles and prepacks will carry the Union Flag this year.