CHICORY: ART OF DARKNESS CROP
In the pitch dark growing rooms of a Lincolnshire farm, tight white chicons sprout from bare roots that may have been lifted as much as a year earlier. Tessa Gates sheds some light on a crop which is spoiled if allowed to go green
THERE is just one commercial chicory grower in the country – Jack Buck Growers, Spalding, Lincs – and it is hardly surprising given that chicory has a shelf life of about two days once it faces the glare of supermarket lighting.
Chicory is cultivated for its leaves which are used as a salad vegetable, or cooked as a whole chicon. Grown in complete darkness, chicory becomes very bitter and unpalatable if left in the light and allowed to go green. Spent roots go for cattle feed here but they can be ground for use with, or instead of coffee.
At Jack Buck they have been growing chicory since 1984, when Jack Buck Growers was started as a marketing arm to Jack Buck Farms. The farm enterprise was founded by Jack Buck, who is now in his 80s, on 121ha (300 acres). Over the years the farm has been built up to 404.6ha (1000 acres), growing 12 crops from wheat, onions, potatoes and sugar beet to unusual salad crops and daffodil bulbs. It is run by Robin and David Buck who continue their fathers policy of growing a range of crops that will keep the farm busy throughout the year, so that every machine and every building constantly earns its keep.
"We dont have any slack time through the year except for late December, and from June to the end of November we are lifting crops. We cold store everything – we have 25 cold stores – so we can sell when we want and the price is right," says Julian Perown, who has worked for both companies in the enterprise for 18 months.
"The idea behind Jack Buck Growers was to improve the returns on crops that we cannot get co-ops to market, such as raddichio, kohl rabi, pak choi, celeriac. Chicory was already being grown by the previous owner of this site," says Julian, "and his son, Tony Ruigrok, is our general manager".
On the Continent chicory is a popular vegetable but has never really taken off with the British housewife. Jack Buck Growers promote it through food shows, local food groups and recipe leaflets to get more people to try it.
Jack Buck grows a total of 40.46ha (100 acres) of roots. In May, a specially developed air drill sows the pinhead-size seed a precise 10cms (4ins) apart to get an even root size. The seed is difficult to establish and the plants are prone to attack by aphids, particularly the peach potato aphid. The rows are hand-hoed twice at a cost of £247/ha (£100/acre), and the long, thin roots are lifted from late October to the end of November with a modified potato harvester. The bare roots are stored in boxes at -1C.
One root produces one chicon and each week over the year following lifting, roots will be taken out of store, graded then hand set closely and upright into trays for growing on hydroponically. "This system was developed here," says Julian, showing the rubber lined trays that are stacked six high and piped with water that will flow at a constant depth of 5cm (2in) round the roots for the 21 days it takes for the chicons to develop. In the humid growing rooms, where 8-10t is produced each week, the waxy leaved chicory heads make an eerie sight.
"The ideal chicon weighs 100g as we are constrained by the supermarkets to produce 200g packs of two," says Julian. "Some chicons are larger so you will be giving that extra away. We supply all the big multiples, who retail the packs at between 60p and 90p, and wholesale markets. We even export some to Holland from where we occasionally import it, if our orders go up suddenly.
"The product doesnt keep, so if the market contracts the chicory has to be dumped. It is a crop of tight margins and a contracting market, and the number of British growers has reduced from three to one in the past five years."
Chicory roots are lifted from late October to the end of November with a modified potato harvester and the long thin roots are then put into cold store for up to a year until they are needed to produce the chicons.
Julian Perown with trays of chicons fresh from the humid growing rooms. Jack Buck Growers supply major supermarkets and wholesale markets.