Ali Capper grows fruit and hops on a 200-year-old family farm in Worcestershire. She tells us about the challenges and opportunities facing British fruit and vegetable growers, from access to a seasonable workforce to a changing climate.
The UK horticulture sector includes more than 340 different crops – all the fruit, veg, plants and flowers grown here in the UK. While growers' crops may be very different, many of the issues we face are the same. For example, do we have enough water to irrigate our crops? Can we recruit the people we need to grow, pick and pack our crops? Is the regulation (rules and guidance) for our sector appropriate and does it allow growers to be competitive in a global market?
What are hops?
- Hops are the cone-shaped flowers of the hop plant Humulus lupulus.
- They are used primarily as a bittering, flavouring, and stability agent in beer, to which, in addition to bitterness, they give floral, fruity, or citrus flavours and aromas.
- There are many varieties of hops, and each kind give different characteristics and flavours to beer.
The biggest challenge over the past year has been accessing competent, reliable and hard-working staff to help us pick and pack our crops. The workers we need are seasonal, meaning that they tend to visit the UK, do this work and then go home afterwards. The sector has been short of the numbers required for a period of years now – and Brexit has only made this worse. Put simply, we need the right government policies. Every European country, the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia all have seasonal worker permit schemes that allow harvest workers to visit to do these jobs.
The horticulture sector is very ambitious, is not reliant on support payments, and is very willing to invest in high-tech and robotic solutions. Every year, we’re introducing new varieties, novel ways of growing crops, new automation and new ways to reduce the amount of hard work in the sector.
The robots are coming. Although it will be at least seven years before we see any commercial-scale harvesting by machine. It’s a massive technological development to emulate the amazing visionary perception and manual dexterity of a human, by a robot.
In the next five years it would be amazing to think that the British government will get behind British fruit and veg, plants and flowers with the right policies, the right import and export trade agreements and the right fiscal measures. British retailers must buy British first!
As the climate changes, the type of crops we can grow in the UK will change, to some extent. We already have apricots, peaches and wine grapes now established in the UK. Sweet potatoes, quinoa and other new crops are also being developed to grow in our climate. The UK is very lucky as we have enough water, where other countries do not, so even with a warming climate, we will still be a good place to grow food in the future.
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