The British cucumber is in peril. With production steadily declining amid a backdrop of supermarket price wars, reduced returns to growers and cheap Dutch imports, Produce Business UK assesses what can be done to arrest this cautionary tale, as history threatens to repeat itself pretty quickly in the sweet pepper, aubergine and tomato industries
The cucumber rarely makes the pages of the national press, save for the odd Yotam Ottolenghi recipe or a feature on the traditional English pastime of afternoon tea. Yet, two weeks ago, both the broadsheets and red tops alike noted that British cucumbers are on the brink of extinction thanks to a period of sustained retailer price wars that has seen the price of a cucumber drop from 80p-90p to somewhere between 40p and 50p.
Derek Hargreaves, technical officer at the Cucumber Growers Association (CGA), concedes that some of the headlines bordered on the sensationalist, but admits people’s interest in the plight of British cucumber growers has finally been piqued.
“It’s a slight exaggeration to say it’s on the brink of extinction but saying that things are pretty bad doesn’t quite grab the same headlines,” he explains.
The situation has been acute for three or four years now, Hargreaves sighs. And he pulls no punches when asked what has caused this predicament. The blame, in his estimation, lies squarely at the door of the supermarkets.
“The supermarkets reduced the sale price,” he says. “Asda began the price cutting to 50p, although to be fair to Asda, initially at least, it was still paying the growers what it had been paying when the retailer was selling cucumbers for 80p. Growers weren’t adversely affected immediately, but most weren’t happy.”
Growers complained to Hargreaves and anyone else that would listen that cutting the price so dramatically would devalue the product in the eyes of the consumer.
“Which is exactly what happened,” Hargreaves states. “Every other supermarket jumped on the bandwagon and 50p now is the most you can get. That’s the crazy thing: go back a few years and cucumbers cost anywhere between 80p to £1.20. If they were worth 80p four years ago, by rights, it should be 85p now.”
Returns to growers have been so squeezed that many are leaving the industry. For the first time in many years, cucumber production in the UK has fallen to 100 hectares (ha) from an industry-high of 240ha in the mid-1980s.
“It’s been steadily declining since then,” Hargreaves notes. “A year ago it was around 110ha but over the last 12 months we’ve lost some fairly substantial players. One grower was producing 150 cucumbers a square metre and he couldn’t even make it work.”
A race to the bottom
The region that has taken the biggest hit is the North East. Humber growers were the biggest producers of UK cucumbers in the 1970s and 1980s – possibly the world, suggests Hargreaves – yet now there are no growers left.
That has left the Lea Valley area as the largest established area of cucumber production in the UK, growing over 80 million sticks per annum (75% of UK production), according to the secretary of the Lea Valley Growers Association, Lee Stiles.
Moreover, Stiles believes cucumbers are not the only salad line affected by the supermarket price wars. He says these promotions have driven down the cost of peppers, aubergines and tomatoes too, as retailers look to achieve savings from suppliers rather than pursuing the initial loss leader model adopted by Asda.
He does strike a note of optimism though: “This is unsustainable in the short term and consumers will undoubtedly seek out quality over price with the fairer retailers succeeding.”
Unfortunately other industry figures don’t see much evidence of fairness. Jack Ward, chief executive of British Growers, says much of the industry is stuck in a deflationary spiral.
“It’s a race to the bottom,” he says. “And who knows where it will end and how much longer it will last. We need to get some inflation into the retail economy so we can return more to the growers, but are consumers ready for a price increase? We seem to have walked into a culture where if you wait long enough you can be anything for next to nothing. This expectation has to be reversed.”
It’s not just returns from buyers that are squeezing the life out of the British cucumber industry either. The government’s intention to cut tax credits and raise the living wage is another burden that will be ultimately felt by growers.
“It’s another inflation in costs,” says Ward, “without the opportunity to recover costs in the price of produce.”
Hargreaves concurs: “It wouldn’t be an issue if the product sold for a representative increase in money, so you could cover your costs. But that is effectively not going to happen. If the supermarkets carry on paying these prices we won’t be talking about 100ha in a year’s time, it will drop even lower.”
Some growers have switched to other products. Hargreaves says some have gone into strawberry production and, although he’s not aware of any growers doing so at present, he can see a time when some switch to tomatoes.
“But people don’t want to swap crops,” he explains. “They’re only doing so because they don’t see any other choice. Cucumber growers are cucumber growers because that’s what they’re good at. I’m not saying it’s rocket science, but each crop is different.”
Stiles backs up this point: “This year (Lea Valley) members have around 50 acres of glasshouses under development, however, none of the new developments have been earmarked for cucumbers as the returns at current prices are unsustainable.”
Worth more than 50p?
Unsurprisingly, Hargreaves wants the retail price to rise and for sense to prevail. “Cucumbers should be sold at 80p. No one is making money from cucumbers at present – supermarkets, growers, distributors, no one. It’s daft. Nobody owes cucumber growers a living. It’s not about that, but the stupid promotion of cucumbers is destroying their livelihood. Cucumbers have been effectively targeted. It’s crazy. They’ve taken a product that granted is not the end of the world when it comes to food, but it is described as a staple in diets… We just think it’s worth more than 50p.
“We need 2p more. If a cucumber sells for 50p in the supermarket the grower will get a very small proportion of that. If the price rose back to normal levels, say 80p, the supermarkets would still take the lion’s share. If growers got 2-3p more they would be more than happy. The reality is we’re not going to get it. It’s sad. Growers are banging their heads against a brick wall and after a while if you carry on doing that you’re going to get a headache. The signs reaching me are that in the latest round of negotiations the supermarkets want to pay less not more.”
Hargreaves says supermarkets are using the low prices they pay to Dutch growers for their excess as a lever to beat down the price they pay UK growers. But what about the retailers’ proud boasts of supporting British growers? Hargreaves laments the distance between bullish rhetoric and depressing reality.
“It’s not high on the list of priorities,” he says bluntly. “It used to be, in fairness, before this 50p business. It was quite significant, now it’s all about cheapness. Supermarkets can afford to pay more – but all they’re interested in is how cheap they can sell it.”
“Sales of cucumbers at Waitrose are up 6.2% on last year,” the spokesperson claims. “We stock UK-grown cucumbers from the start of the season in mid-February through to early November. Seventy per cent of the vegetables sold by Waitrose are British and we continually champion working with UK growers to produce crops which have traditionally been challenging to grow here.”
How long, then, can British cucumber growers survive in this challenging scenario? Hargreaves rightly points out that each business is different, but whichever way you look at it, things aren’t good.
“If you recently pulled down your greenhouses and rebuilt and you’ve got a fair amount of debt then probably not very long,” he says. “If you’re a lean business, haven’t borrowed any money to capitalise and your infrastructure is relatively good and paid for then you can live off the depreciation. Which is not what you are supposed to do. You’re supposed to use that for reinvesting. But people are not reinvesting.”
The question remains, will the slow decline of the British cucumber act as a cautionary tale for the rest of the industry, or will it be the wake-up call that finally shocks growers and buyers alike into action? Time will tell.