Gearing up to
By Edward Long
AS the area of organically grown vegetables expands, more value-added produce will need storing if rising imports are to be avoided.
That was the main message for an organic vegetable conference at the Henry Doubleday Research Associations headquarters at Ryton near Coventry.
"If more UK organically-grown produce is to be sold, customers must have it available all year round," independent vegetable specialist Peter Rickard told the audience.
"Not all of it could be supplied by domestic producers. But without some form of effective storage a lot more of the market could be lost to overseas competion."
Concern over lack of sufficient storage on organic farms led MAFF to commission HDRA to undertake a study to discover the extent of the problem, and establish how best to right the shortfall.
"There is nothing particularly organic about storage and a lot of the techniques developed for conventional farms can be used in a non-chemical regime," said Mr Rickard. "Temperature and humidity requirements are the same, so require the same controls, and effective insulation is essential.
"But before investing an organic grower must ask the question: Why do I need to store? Several years ago anyone who built a store to keep a crop over winter could expect to sell it in the spring and make a fortune. This has long since changed, killed off by the development and widespread use of sophisticated cold stores and imports. The main reason for holding produce now is to ensure a regular supply is available to customers over an extended period, and to even out production peaks and troughs to avoid selling onto a glutted market."
Vegetable storage need not be expensive or sophisticated. The traditional way of holding produce in clamps in the field works reasonably well and is highly cost-effective. A more modern approach with carrots is to field-store the crop under a polythene and straw cover from the late autumn until early summer.
Each crop stored inside has its own unique temperature and humidity requirements. Potatoes for crisping and chipping need to be held at 10C with 90% RH, but for pre-packing 4C and 95% RH. Onions require lower temperature and humidity conditions of -1C and 70% RH. But cabbage needs 95% RH. Failure to maintain humidity levels for cabbage means loss of turgidity and spoilt quality.
"Quality usually deteoriates in store, but onion colour can be improved by curing, and celery tastes a lot better after a short period of storage. The challenge is to reduce the spoilage rate. So it is important to select only the best produce, in terms of health and maturity, and take care during loading to avoid damage and contamination with debris," Mr Rickard said.
Organic vegetable production is far from dead. But to meet the strong demand, growers must improve storage and choose the right varieties. Here NIABs Mike Day demonstrates the latest culinary swede, Helenor.
Demand for organically-grown vegetables is outstripping home grown supplies and allowing a flood of imports.
That provides a market opportunity for farmers and growers. And because of the long lead time needed to switch from conventional production to organic the shortfall is unlikely to be reversed for several years.
"Currently about 70% of the organic vegetables sold in this country have to be imported, so there is huge scope for increased domestic production," confirmed Dr Margi Lennartsson of the Henry Doubleday Research Association.
"Demand has increased due to the widespread adoption of direct marketing schemes, which have widened the market, and kept home grown produce off supermarket shelves. Our biggest problem is meeting the increased demand."
Since it was introduced in the summer MAFFs Organic Conversion Information Service, a scheme to provide free advice to farmers wanting to convert all or part of their land to organic production, has generated widespread interest.
Although its aim is to increase organic production, only some converted land will be put into vegetables. The HDRA reckons it will be three to four years before there is any impact on the shortfall of domestic production.