Britons buy £3.8bn-worth of fruit and vegetables from supermarkets every year, but producer margins are slimmer than ever.
Consolidation has concentrated growing areas into fewer hands, creating large players like Southern England Farms, which grows brassicas and courgettes for retailers like Tesco on 2430ha (6000 acres) and market crops from a further 1215ha (3000 acres) in Cornwall.
Technical director Alasdair MacLennan said the scale of the business had made it a viable direct supplier to the supermarkets.
“Our location allows us to supply two of our core products – cauliflower and spring greens – throughout the year.
We can also grow several other brassica and vegetable products for longer in the year than other UK counties.
“By over-wintering crops, altering planting densities and working with seed houses to select early and late varieties we can supply several weeks of UK produce at times of the year when other retailers stock imported product.”
SEF worked hard to anticipate consumer trends, even for a staple product like whole-head cauliflower, he added.
“This has helped our customers differentiate their offer, giving the consumer what they want as well as extending our season of supply which obviously suits us.”
And though the retail price of cauliflower has halved in recent weeks, Mr MacLennan is positive about the relationship with the multiple stores that SEF supplies.
“You have to see yourself and your customers as a kind of partnership.
A ‘them and us’ attitude will not work.
Of course, we hold weekly price negotiations to allow both buyer and seller the opportunity to reflect all the factors affecting the market in the selling price.”
Another perspective came from Cambs-based potato grower Roger Hart-Pain, who produces to a min-max contract from Waitrose.
“One of the challenges of growing potatoes is getting the right quality.
If we can take out the uncertainty over what we’re going to get paid and for how much, it makes our job easier.
We’re set prices that are sustainable – the whole idea was to take out the peaks and the troughs.”
Waitrose also opened up its books to growers, comparing their sales with those of other retailers.
“They’ve done an excellent job of their marketing and sales are going in the right direction.”