What I would have told the Lords' horticultural enquiry so we can feed the nation

Watching the Lords enquiry into horticulture, there were plenty of things I would have told them.

The British turnip king who used to grow 57 million a year is not growing this year. At least two apple orchards grubbed so far this year. Tomato growers are not growing over winter. There is a cucumber grower who makes more money exporting cucumbers to Singapore than selling to British supermarkets. I know of some produce in Suffolk that is transported to Dublin for packing and then brought back for English supermarkets!

Advice and support. We used to have something called ADAS -Agricultural Development and Advisory Service - in fact, the five universities offering horticulture in the 1960s and 1970s geared students towards it (including me!). There were at least 1,200 advisors and it was FREE, including free soil analysis, P&D diagnosis, production advice etc.

Colleges. Every county had a county agricultural college that focused on ag and hort - especially the locally produced stuff, so Bridgwater's Cannington Campus (previously Somerset College of Agriculture) did a lot of fruit growing. Over the last 30 years all but one (Pulborough) has been joined (and run by) colleges in towns that seem to fail to grasp the needs of the ag and hort industries and mostly want bums on seats - so dog grooming courses and equine are the answer! Many colleges (West Anglia at Wisbech - comes to mind) have grubbed orchards and built student accommodation or even sold off land for housing estates.

I also believe in local wholesale markets. My nearest big one is Bristol - four hours' drive away.


Growing local. My local grocer has deliveries by tractor from local growers and a lorry comes down from Bristol with produce not grown in the southwest of the UK. Produce grown in the Southwest and heading for supermarket sales is transported to a central distribution point. This can mean Cornish produce going to the Midlands and coming back again!

Another thought is that British children should learn more about food and cooking at school with the focus being on British, local and seasonal. (With cold storage etc., seasonal is not necessarily a problem these days).

My other concerns include:

Vertical Farming (VF) - overcomes local and seasonal issues and is great if you want to live on leafy greens and strawberries (although a University in America is looking at producing the one-foot tall tomato plant suitable for vertical farming). But vertical farms are expensive to set up and, now especially, with high energy costs, to run. But my biggest concern about vertical farms is that there is no contact with the soil microbiome. I believe the soil microbiome is important to our health. The growing media and hydroponic solutions used in vertical farming and in general glasshouse production do not have access to the microbes in the soil. Research into this and its effects on crops and humans is currently being undertaken. 

Solar panels. As yet we do not have truly transparent panels so shade is a problem when trying to grow below them. Yes, it is suggested sheep grazing or for hens under panels - but my concern is the cleaning fluid used to maintain the panels. On solar farms it is essential to keep the panels working efficiently - especially with the lack of British sunshine from November to March - so any moss, algae, pollutants from industry etc must be removed. I wouldn't want to eat anything grown in the soil subjected to the chemical run-off or eat the sheep or hens eating the grass grown in the soil.

Fertiliser. To grow sufficient food, fertiliser is needed especially since natural elements have been robbed from the soil over the decades. Although there are organic fertilisers, much of the fertiliser used comes from oil-based products. They feed the plants but leave the soil in a worse state. In the past, I always used good farmyard manure from a farm where steroids and antibiotics are not a problem. I think this means we need dairy and cattle. Yes, there is the possibility of using human biowaste - but the treatment plants are unable to remove so much - the medicines, viruses, the plastics we accidentally consume etc. I believe there is a strong case for mixed farming (perhaps co-operation between growers and animal farmers), and in the value of crop rotation and in regenerative ag and hort. This can save our soils and their microbes. Mega dairy farms should be halted - they supply the cheap needs of supermarkets but is horrid for the animals and their health.

Above all, the public needs education. They might moan about food coming in plastic containers but won't act over it. They understand food miles but ignore them. They say there is no time to shop at different shops locally or to cook from scratch - yet spend hours/day in front of the TV. 

Food production on the edge of towns and cities is good. Lea Valley was there for London and the home counties but supermarket distribution points can be in another part of the country. And, as towns and cities grow, the land is needed for housing and its price increases. The tomato nursery I worked on in the 1970s is a housing estate now.

Ageing workforce. Another problem - we talk about the older workforce and the lack of young people coming into the industry (especially the production side) but many growers are finding the next generation doesn't want to be involved. 

Seasonal workers. In the 1970s and 1980s it was easy to go for eight weeks work picking fruit and then return to benefits. The benefits system doesn't support this. Instead, we try to fly in loads of people from abroad. My days on the tomato nursery are very memorable - great friendships, wonderful experience, built muscle without a gym fee, and got a sun tan without paying for a tanning bed or a flight to Spain!

EHSs: We used to have loads of experimental horticultural stations back in the 70s and early 80s. They were largely focused on the horticulture of the area. So, Efford EHS at Lymington in Hampshire was largely HONS, Long Ashton outside Bristol was top fruit, Rosewarne EHS in Cornwall was daffodils. Kirton EHS in Lincolnshire was largely brassicas and onions. There was East Malling EHS and Wellesborne and Luddington EHSs - which served the Vale of Evesham - and others such as Brogdale and Rothamsted and the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute (GCRI) at Littlehampton. Research has largely been centralised. Levies mean growers pay to benefit - yet food production is essential. The EHS understood local conditions, crops and problems and disseminated information freely - the aim being to boost UK horticulture and food production (especially in years after the war).

Sally Drury is technical editor at HortWeek

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