Demand for snack cucumbers increasing

Despite consumer demand increasing over the last 30 years, the area of UK cucumber production is now just 102 ha, less than half of the peak production seen in 1990 which saw around 100,000 tonnes a year from 264 ha. While productivity has increased over that period, (UK production is now around 55,000 tonnes), according to the Cucumber Growers’ Association (CGA) imports over the same period have risen from approximately 50,000 tonnes in the early 1990’s to 168,800 tonnes last year, reports Richard Crowhurst.

So if demand is buoyant, why are cucumber growers not expanding production? One answer is the tough competition from Spain and the Netherlands, with some in the industry accusing the Dutch of dumping excessive volumes of product to suppress prices. In turn this is limiting the ability and willingness of growers to invest, particularly when the returns from other greenhouse crops are more attractive.

In terms of production techniques, “There has been a gradual (faltering in some cases) move to growing on high wire systems to increase output, accompanied by some use of lighting to both extend the period of production and also to increase output,” says Derek Hargreaves, Technical Officer at the CGA. “At least one grower in the south has only ever used high wire cropping and accounts for 12 per cent of the UK crop area (and more in terms of overall output). Another grower in the south has a substantial area of high wire crop in the Lea Valley.”

He explains that high wire cropping aims to produce more than 200 fruits per sq m per year, compared to standard cordon systems which produce closer to 150 – 165 fruits per sqm. “You would expect the use of lighting to produce more, but then it has to justify the investment,” he adds. “In the 1990’s the CGA carried out trials for HDC and achieved over 300 fruits per m2 using high pressure sodium lighting, but with the use of LED lighting that can be placed between the crop, production levels can be pushed higher still.”

As with other sectors of horticulture, the availability of suitable labour is also limiting expansion. “At least one Lea Valley grower this year has decided not to build for the 2020 season because of the lack of suitable labour – or at least the assumption that it will be difficult to obtain,” adds Derek.

So could changes in consumer demand, and a move to more differentiated and niche types of cucumber, be one way for UK growers to improve returns? Once again, the main factor preventing expansion in this area is economics. “I have been involved with large-scale production of midi-cucumber, mini-cucumber and cocktail fruits,” says Derek. “The issue is not the production, but the returns for growing them. Cocktail cucumbers are prone to flushes of growth that produce masses of fruit in some weeks which cannot be sold, but which still has to be harvested.” He also says that the production of ‘midi’ and ‘mini’ fruited varieties is hampered by the UK market’s desire for halved cucumbers. “Cocktail fruit has more potential because it is something that does not have a cut down equivalent,” he points out. “There are large quantities sold in other states in the EU and also in Canada, but while UK production is low, it is there and it is climbing. Compared to fruits like tomato – cucumber has a bit of an uphill climb – we need people to appreciate the advantages of having a refreshing product where you can eat the container as well– it is not all about salads!.” He points out that restaurants in the Netherlands “serve cucumber with everything – hot and cold,” and feels that UK consumers are possible less adventurous.

Rens Muusers, Cucumber sales specialist at BASF Vegetable Seeds, feels that reductions in the size of households and an increased focus on convenience are both driving demand for smaller snack-type cucumbers. “At Nunhems we are constantly following these consumer trends and using them in our breeding activities and further developing our portfolio. Besides the long English cucumber, we also have a portfolio of mini cucumbers (around 14cm in length). We are also looking at, together with partners in the chain, how we as an industry can act on these changes through the current product we have or concepts around it. Comparing the UK market with other European countries, or the North American market, I think the trend for mini or snack cucumber is less developed. However, even in other markets the percentage of the acreage for mini/snack types grown is still fairly small compared to long English cucumbers.”

He also points out that as well as different sizes, the sector is starting to see the development of different shapes and flavours. “Perhaps the cucumber segment is not as differentiated as tomato, but you do see new segments to develop beside the standard long English cucumber,” he adds.

Following on from their open days (see page 26) one person who believes that there is scope to develop the market for snack cucumbers in the UK is John Burrows of Pro-Veg. “All of these snacking-type baby/mini cucumbers are very crunchy due to their relatively high dry matter,” he points out. “This is because the ratio of outer surface to flesh is much higher than that of the regular Beit Alpha, or long Dutch-type cucumbers, which makes them attractive to consumers.”

Pro-Veg has been supplying seed for varieties of snacking cucumbers for the last 15 years, and John reports that interest in these smaller-fruited, better-tasting cucumbers seems to be increasing year on year. He recommends, “The variety Mini Munch F1 is an early hybrid of medium vigour bred for protected cropping with very little side branching and parthenocarpic (all female) flowering. The 8-10 cm fruit is mid-green in colour, and has a smooth skin with firm and crisp texture and an exceptionally good taste and flavour. It also sets fruit well, even in cooler conditions. There are many other mini cucumber prototypes which are available from our overseas breeders which we can source as well.” John also points out that it has taken a long time for the cherry tomato market to develop from the original introduction of the open pollinated variety Gardener’s Delight in the late 1970s, and feels that there is a danger that new ideas are dismissed too quickly.

Joe Shepherdson of Enza Zaden points out that some supermarkets have looked at using midi cucumbers to replace the wrapped half cucumber offer, and that this market could be given a boost by attitudes to plastic packaging. “This is still really a developing market,” he explains. “The key focus at the moment appears to be in one-bite cucumbers, and our breeders are focusing on this market, which seems to be asking for fruit 2-3cm in length. Obviously the key to success in this sector, like any other, is the number of fruits producer per m sq. We are constantly working to improve plant types and fruit quality, but we always have to be aware of potential new agronomic pressures, such as pest and disease.”

Sarah Mayne, Crop Specialist at Rijk Zwaan agrees that snacking is currently the biggest trend in the cucumber sector, but people are also looking at other ways to diversify production. “We have the main varieties Quarto RZ and Qwerty RZ, but the range has diversified to include alternative colours, such as Quinton RZ which is a pale green, and Quirk RZ which is bicoloured, although the options are a little more limited in cues when it comes to colour compared to other crops like tomato.”

She continues, “As with most crops, disease pressures remain challenging. In cucumbers the focus is mainly on powdery mildew Mycosphaerella, and cucumber green mottle mosaic virus. We have numerous varieties with intermediate or high resistance to powdery mildew, and our BonDefence range features varieties resistant to virus. These are especially important for crops that are planted longer, including high wire, organic production.”

The company has also developed an even smaller snack cucumber, called Quatrino RZ, which can be eaten in a single bite. “In addition to snacks, we also have mini cucumbers such as Picowell RZ, which measure up to 15cm, and midi sizes such as Media RZ which are a little larger, around 20cm,” Sarah adds. “There is limited area of these types in the UK, but it seems that with the current awareness around plastic packaging that they represent a viable alternative to the cut portion in the UK.”

And so, inevitably, the subject for plastic wrap on cucumbers appears. The ‘Blue Planet effect’ has seen a rush of retailers looking to remove surplus packaging from their products, with at least one major supermarket removing plastic wrap. However, Derek Hargeaves warns that such moves may be counter-productive. “The CGA have been looking at alternatives to using single use plastic for wrapping cucumbers,” he explains. “We feel that the sale of naked fruits is not a suitable alternative because the fruits rapidly lose moisture and deteriorate if not protected. Therefore some means of reducing moisture loss is needed. The main work, collaboration with a major University, has been looking at using a plant-derived alternative to shrink wrap which is still in the development stages. However, if it can be made to work, because it can be composted in normal garden compost (it can actually be eaten – but we think that may be a step too far), we may have something to help the plastic situation whilst still keeping our cucumbers wrapped.”

Joe Shepherdson agrees that plastic reduction will continue to be a key topic, but says, “In the cucumber sector it will continue to be about finding a balance between food waste (Cucumber shelf life is reduced massively without shrink wrap) and plastic reduction. With this in mind our breeders our working to develop a range of varieties that are stronger on the shelf when naked.