Woodbridge farmer says growing ‘vegetables costs a fortune’
10:15 am 25 June 2022
With the help of the government’s new seasonal labor scheme, organic vegetable grower James Foskett has managed to assemble a team of 105 people to bring in this year’s harvest.
They are working hard on his crops of carrots, radishes, beets and potatoes – which are doing well. In the aftermath of Brexit, labor has been a big headache for big growers like James – and it’s a relief to find labor so the vegetables don’t rot in the fields .
The problem is that the whole exercise is costing the Woodbridge farmer a fortune – and while grain prices have soared following the war in Ukraine, demand for vegetables like potatoes and carrots is not where it could be – which has an impact -on effect on its profits. In the meantime, its input and wage costs have skyrocketed.
James farms 3500 acres of land in the Deben Valley. As part of the government’s new program to address what was a severe labor shortage in the food and agriculture sector, its seasonal workers – who come from countries such as Moldova, Bulgaria, Romanians and l ‘Uzbekistan – cost £10.10 an hour, compared to the national minimum wage of £9.50. He must pay an additional £360 each for visa and other fees to be paid for their maximum stay of six months. It also increased the wages of its permanent workforce to keep pace.
To replenish his workforce during the Christmas season, he will have to repeat this new visa process and bear the additional costs. The money is going to Pro-Force, one of the seasonal labor recruitment companies commissioned by the government to bring in seasonal agricultural labor in the post-Brexit world. At the same time, supermarkets are competing to offer the lowest possible vegetable prices.
“To be fair, we have a full complement. We have 105 people at the moment – which is great – but they are costing us a fortune. We have that, we have the fertilizer increase. All of our tractor drivers regulars got a raise like we do every year.
“But the fuel is absolutely crippling at the moment. You can imagine – a big tractor uses 50-60 liters per hour,” says James, who also grows a range of other crops – including onions, sugar beets, corn, vine peas. , sweet corn, green beans and cereals. “It costs £75 an hour to run a big tractor. We have to deal with all these things.”
Overall, he estimates his costs have increased by 20-25% across the board.
“But we don’t collect that from the retailer – they are really intractable,” he adds.
“We had a bit of potato inflation when we launched our potato contracts last November, but since then inflation has increased another 10%.”
And it’s a rapidly changing market. There was a time when the public looked forward to their first fresh new potatoes of the season and they were in high demand. “And they taste great,” adds James.
Nowadays, carrots and potatoes are sold at low prices, he thinks. Jersey – an early potato producer – would normally have cleared its crops by now, but that’s not the case and there are still quite a few potatoes still in stock from last year. “It’s a little weird,” he admits.
A relatively early spring meant that this year’s vegetable crops matured earlier than last year and he started harvesting at the end of May.
“Things are quite dry and we’re pretty flat on irrigation, but in general the crops are looking pretty good,” he says.
“We haven’t relied on fertilizer for wheat because of the price – it’s profitable.”
On the organic side, it uses chicken mud and digestate to fertilize the soil. Only 3% of the country’s food is organic. It’s a growing market, but the demand isn’t high at the moment, he says. “It just eased off a bit,” he explains. This could be due to a bit of consumer belt-tightening due to inflation – but its head of population’s food expenditure is still low and those who buy organic produce tend to have deeper pockets.
However, overall the situation for the relatively few vegetable growers in the UK is difficult and the costs are becoming increasingly unsustainable, he admits.
“It’s quite difficult at the moment. If you look at the vegetable sector, there’s a huge amount of investment in machinery and so on,” he says.
“If we’re not careful, people are going to pack it. It’s barely profitable. I don’t just bleat. We just need a fair return for what we do. As the multiples fight to keep customers, that doesn’t help us.”
Last season James had to return some of his carrots because he couldn’t sell them over Christmas and January. “There was a good harvest there and there was just too much,” he says. Hopefully he gets better luck this season, but the numbers still aren’t adding up.