These are extraordinary times. With COVID, Brexit and the vagaries of climate change upon us, we appear to be in the eye of a perfect storm.

Our organic fruit and vegetable wholesalers are reporting that Brexit (and all the accompanying paperwork) is creating long delays at ports, with huge queues of lorries impacting on the freshness and quality of what is eventually getting through. At the same time, we know that many small European organic wholesalers are choosing to cancel exports to their regular UK customers because the paperwork for small consignments is just too onerous – making it uneconomic to take the risk.

You might have also heard about the impact of Storm Filomena on the continent. The worst snowstorms to hit Spain in 50 years (pictured above, courtesy of NASA) and prolonged sub-zero temperatures have affected Spain’s important vegetable-growing regions, dramatically limiting availability to UK wholesalers who are hugely reliant on Spanish growers at this time of year for fresh vegetables. At best, very cold weather will slow crop growth significantly, affecting size and quality; at worst, it can cause irreparable damage and result in widespread losses.

Import prices are soaring

In the face of these delays, some wholesalers and supermarket buyers are panicking, choosing to dramatically increase the amount of air-freighted fresh fruit and veg in order to meet demand. (Don’t worry, dear reader, we will never purchase air-freighted goods.)

As a result, imported organic fruit and veg prices are soaring. Before Christmas, organic aubergines were around £1.95kg wholesale. Today, they were £5.60kg at the wholesaler – more than double the price. It’s quite extraordinary. We would have to charge £10/kg to achieve our usual margins to cover our labour and capital costs.

Crates of fruit and vegetables at an organic wholesalers

Our local organic wholesaler

A return to the seasons

So what do we do? Do we choose not to charge these ridiculous prices and thus shield our customers from reality of Brexit, but lose money hand over first?

No. Even if I wanted to, the fact is that, as a small business, we simply cannot afford to do this. Instead, I would rather be open and honest with you all with the realities we are facing and hope you understand that we cannot offer the usual range of imported fruit and veg, and that the kale which is still growing in our garden is a good seasonal UK alternative.

I have always thought we need to eat more seasonally available UK foods, but offer a range of imported foods for box variety (and to keep some of you interested!). But my belief that we should rely more on seasonally available UK produce has been reaffirmed by the present Brexit-induced import crisis. We need to be more food secure in this country, to recognise the environmental benefits of seasonal food, and support our growers by living more with the seasons.

The indirect impact of COVID-19

COVID is, of course, the double-whammy. As supermarket shelves emptied in March 2020 and people became increasingly nervous about going to supermarkets, the demand on local growers like us increased to a previously unimaginable scale. As I’ve said before in a previous blog, we have now more than doubled our veg box customer numbers since January 2020 — and most of the local veg box suppliers I know have experienced the same. It’s been incredible to see.

We all know why and it’s to be applauded: more people are cooking from scratch, realising their food security is with their local producers and many now recognise the importance of good food and, in turn, good health. We’ve also seen more people connecting with nature and the environment, and the impact of our food choices on the environment. Several articles have also highlighted the risk of future pandemics from industrial food production, particularly intensively raised animals.

It’s wonderful to see and the many messages of thanks that we have received over the last year has been truly heart-warming. It’s fantastic to think that the public is recognising the importance of farmers and growers again, and really thinking about what they eat and how it affects their health and the wider world. It’s been a long time coming, I can tell you! (See this recent BBC article on whether coronavirus has made us more ethical.)

But vegetables and fruit don’t grow on trees…. Ok, so that might be the best analogy! My point is that growing anything other than salad leaves takes planning, investment, labour and time — usually several months from planting the seed to harvest. Despite increasing our growing area in the walled garden last year by digging up grass pathways and areas of unused pasture, the dramatic increase in veg box customers since March gave us little time to prepare and grow more food. As a result, the garden is now rapidly emptying and stored crops that would normally have seen us through over the next few months have already been picked and sold. This time last year, our storage facilities contained squash, apples, celeriac, onions, carrots, potatoes and more, while we still had plenty of brassicas, roots, leeks to pick out in the fields. This year, the cupboards (and field) are almost bare by comparison.

So what are the options?

So why not just buy in from local UK wholesalers, I hear you say? The problem is that every veg box scheme and farm shop and independent grocers in the country is in the same position as us. Following Brexit, the availability of fruit and veg at local wholesale is increasingly restricted and, as I said earlier, prices are literally sky-high.

So just grow more, right? Sadly, not everyone has immediate access to more land; land in this country is incredibly expensive to buy or rent—especially productive land; rental agreements take an age to set up and, as I said earlier, most crops take time to grow.

Coleshill Organics polytunnel

However, I think that investing in more protected cropping (polytunnels) would make real sense. It’s going to be a long and very hard ‘hungry gap’ (the infamous period when the winter crops have all but come to an end, but the summer crops are no way near ready) this year, and another polytunnel would definitely help ease that situation, allowing us to at least grow some rapid-growing salad leaves and other early crops for your boxes and the market stalls. But while this will certainly help, it won’t allow us to grow many of the staples or bulk produce we so desperately need.

Another hidden ‘benefit’ of Brexit is that we already have had problems getting some of our much loved and proven organic seed varieties from our European organic seed suppliers. So maybe “just grow more” is not quite that simple.

WE HAVE ENOUGH FOOD

One of the answers lies in reducing waste, and that’s something we can all do. Use all of the vegetables: the outer leaves of your cauliflower, purple sprouting and calabrese. You don’t need to peel carrots (unless eating raw), just scrub them and cook. Look at what is in your veg box and aim use more fragile leafy things first. Chop and freeze what you know you won’t use right away.

We have enough food: we just need to eat more seasonally and not panic. This is about distribution and changing our habits. Developing countries have struggled with these issues while they export to us. Maybe it’s our turn now.