There is increasing concern among forced rhubarb growers in the Netherlands and UK that a lack of cold weather will result in a major shortage this winter.
Growers say that the situation is worse than it was in 2004, when a similar pattern emerged for the crop. Volumes of rhubarb then were severely reduced, with shortages most acute over the winter period.
Dutch growers are currently experiencing volumes 40% down on levels they would normally expect, according to Neil Warden of Hampshire-based Barfoots of Botley, which imports forced rhubarb
from Holland during the winter.
In the UK, the situation is looking grim for forced rhubarb growers in the production heartland around Wakefield. Forced rhubarb is produced by bringing crowns indoors to stimulate growth in darkness. But the crowns need low temperatures before forcing can take place. Conditions are measured in ‘cold units’, which are calculated using the number of days that temperatures are below 10C at midday. The colder it is on any given day, the more units are accrued.
The English forced crop needs around 170 units before it can be forced, but so far only two of them have been recorded. There are fears that English Timperley Early, the first variety of the season, which is usually pulled from the ground in December, may not now be available until January.
Experts say that it is possible to speed up growth with the use of the plant hormone gibberelic acid. But crowns still need to have around 60 cold units behind them before growers can resort to this process.
The main concern is that by the time the forced crop is ready for harvesting, the cheaper outdoor variety will have started to come on stream.
Between 18,000 and 23,000 tonnes of rhubarb are grown in the UK every year.
The farmgate value of the crop is £10m-£13m.
David Shapley