Dotted around the Lea Valley area of Essex and Hertfordshire is a little-known but well-established food industry. Many hectares of greenhouses grow aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, all for the UK market. Many of the 80 growers are of Italian descent: in the 1950s the government recruited workers from Sicily to work in market gardening. Many settled in Hoddesdon and Broxbourne, and their descendants now own vegetable-growing businesses here. Then, there were 480 growers; now there are just 80.
These days modern farming techniques have increased the yield. The growing season now lasts from planting seeds in January to the final harvests before Christmas. Beehives are kept inside the glasshouses and the bees go about pollinating the vegetable plants without bothering the workers. Of course, to grow salad crops requires warmth. The glasshouses must be heated to 20° and this takes a huge amount of energy, usually gas.
The Lea Valley Growers Association represents and supports the 80 growers. I talked to its secretary, Lee Stiles, who points out that the produce is healthy food grown to high standards with low ‘food miles’. This supports government policies on healthy diet and sustainability.
But government does not support the growers in return. They have to plan many months ahead, and Stiles points to two main factors currently hampering this.
With the huge rises in gas prices this year, some growers who had energy bills of £100,000 are afraid their bills could increase to more like £1mn. In a business with no government subsidies and very tight margins, growers can make £50,000 in a good year, or break even, or make a loss. Therefore, extra fuel costs of this size are unsustainable.
Some growers have decided to delay planting till later in the year so they don’t have to heat greenhouses in the colder winter months. Planting in April instead of January means perhaps two annual harvests instead of three, leading to less produce and less profit.
The government has only promised a six-month energy support scheme, due for review next April. Growers are doubtful that it will continue after that. So their fuel costs next year may well be prohibitive – but they won’t know till next spring.
It’s never been easy to hire UK workers. Since the 1950s, the number of locals taking on the work has been tiny. Before Brexit, 95% of pickers were from the EU, latterly Eastern Europe. These EU workers could stay as long as they liked, but now EU nationals must obtain a work visa. The government’s new six-month visa doesn’t suit the glasshouse industry, where harvesting lasts longer. It means losing your first set of pickers in the summer, and training up a fresh set for the second half of the season.
Additionally, when the pound dropped in value after Brexit, the UK stopped being an attractive proposition for EU nationals. They are free to work in other EU countries, and can make more money there. Last year 95% of Lea Valley labour came from Russia and Ukraine; clearly no longer possible. This year they’ve had to bring people from as far as Nepal and Kazakhstan.
Brexit has also sometimes led to import issues. At the start of the season, many growers import thousands of vegetable seedlings on lorries from the Netherlands. Sometimes there are port delays because import paperwork is now so complex. Delays can adversely affect the plants’ condition and leave greenhouse staff with nothing to do as they wait to plant them out.
Around now the growers need to be planning their 2023 season: ordering seed, buying equipment, hiring staff and making agreements with supermarkets. In the current situation, it’s impossible to predict with certainty whether they’ll be able to afford the heating bills or get enough staff. Also, supermarkets are trying to negotiate lower prices to keep costs low for consumers. In the face of these difficulties, several growers have given up altogether, and in the last two years, 20 growers have quit. Greenhouses and land have been sold off for other uses, like light industry. Planning permission has been granted for some plots to become residential housing estates.
Without UK growers, supermarkets have to buy from the Netherlands, Spain and Morocco. Like the UK, the Netherlands can’t produce during colder months, but Spain and Morocco can. Of course it’s a four-day lorry ride from there, so vegetables are not fresh on arrival, and the journey is hardly environmentally sustainable.
EU growers benefit from agricultural subsidies and free movement of labour, making it hard for Lea Valley growers to compete. Stiles says they need more helpful government policies on worker visas and energy cost support. During the pandemic, growers felt valued and ‘essential’; now they don’t, despite being crucial in building Britain’s food security. Sadly, without help, a historic UK food production centre could wither on the vine.