Novel Crops – High rewards but higher risks

With the margins of many traditional crops such as cucumbers and tomatoes under intense pressure, it is no wonder that some growers look to produce novel or unusual plants, particularly those where there is already an established or growing demand from consumers. However, many of these new crops present technical challenges and while the potential rewards can be greater than for commoditised salad items for example, the risk of complete failure is also higher, reports Richard Crowhurst.

In 2016, the news that British Sugar was to convert its 18 ha Cornerways Nursery at Wissington in Norfolk from tomato production to growing cannabis for the pharmaceutical sector surprised many in the industry, not least as Cornerways was the largest single tomato greenhouse in the UK.

The active product produced by British Sugar is Cannabidiol (CBD) which is from a non‐psychoactive variety of the cannabis specifically bred for medical use. Recent years has seen increased interest in the use of cannabis-based medicines and compounds for the treatment of a range of conditions including pain relief and reducing the symptoms of epilepsy, such as the rare childhood condition Dravet Syndrome.

Speaking in October 2016, British Sugar’s managing director Paul Kenward described the move as, “This new era for our horticultural business uses all we have learned to date to further build this value stream for British Sugar and to benefit the pharmaceutical industry. Furthermore, we are extremely proud that our new crop will make a worthwhile contribution to the control of such a debilitating childhood disease. Annually, we will produce enough of this ingredient to treat the equivalent of up to 40,000 children globally.”

Since then British Sugar has become one of the biggest producers of medicinal cannabis, although much of its product has been exported.

The recently announced acquisition of UK-based ornamentals producer Bridge Farm Group by Canadian CBD producer Sundial Growers shows that globally the UK is becoming seen as a centre of the production of medicinal cannabis. This, partly due to relatively low cost, high tech production systems, even if the use of such products in the UK is still more tightly restricted than in some other countries.

“This is a significant acquisition for Sundial, taking us one step closer to our goal of being one of the leading cannabis companies in the world,” said Torsten Kuenzlen, Chief Executive Officer of Sundial Growers Inc. “We recognize that expedient global expansion requires a combination of organic growth and strategic acquisitions. Bridge Farm’s experienced management team, strong market position and operational excellence made it an ideal acquisition.”

With the global market for legal marijuana products estimated at between $40 and $66 billion by 2025, it is no wonder that there is plenty of interest in the legal production of cannabis, but as well as the technical issues, there are numerous licensing and legal requirements which mean that the crop may be unsuitable for consideration by smaller growers.

By contrast Wasabi production is relatively low tech. Some UK growers have been producing the crop in ‘secret’ locations for a while. Things moved up a gear when Jon Old of The Watercress Company set up a sister venture in 2010 and began supplying a range of catering and food service clients across Europe. “It was watercress that led us to Wasabi,” Jon said in an interview. “A chef visiting one of our watercress farms in May 2010 remarked how the only other crop he had seen growing in similar conditions was Wasabi in Japan.” One challenge to potential growers is cashflow as it can take two years for the young plants to develop harvestable rhizomes.

Such considerations haven’t deterred interest in the crop and the latest entrants to the market are northern Irish chemist Dr Sean Kitson and his son Zak, who formed Wasabi Crop Limited two years ago. While researching the production of a number of rare plants, they learned more about the medical benefits of Wasabi japonica and their business idea was born. “We knew this was going to be a challenge due to its stringent growing conditions,” explains Sean on the company’s website. “The first thing we did was to construct a large polytunnel on a two-acre site which has become as known as our Growing Facility. The planning and construction of the polytunnel began in late 2016. The next stage was to secure some Wasabi plant starts from a viable source.” The company now produces Wasabi rhizomes, leaves and stems for both end user customers and gardeners who want to produce their own crops.

Melons

Given the press coverage it has received you could be forgiven for thinking that, contrary to wasabi, melon production in the UK is now widespread, but in fact there are still only a handful of growers. One of the first back in 2010 was Stephen McGuffie of New Farm Produce near Lichfield, who began with varieties of cantaloupe and watermelon which required slightly lower temperature requirements.

His success prompted Hereford-based S&A Produce to give the crop a try, but one of the most high profile producers is Kent-based Watts Farms who grew up to 8,000 melons for Asda last year. “It’s taken lots of trial work to get to the point where we’ve been able to successfully harvest this crop of watermelons as the British climate isn’t traditionally suitable for growing it here,” Watts Farms’ Joe Cottingham told the retailer during his first commercial harvest in 2017.

Having begun trials with 20-30 different types of watermelon, the farm has selected the best ones which are grown in polytunnels and which have benefited from the hot summer weather seen the last couple of years. “They’re grown in polytunnels because they still need protection early summer when you’re still getting cold night-time temperatures,” added Joe. “They look identical to watermelons grown in warmer climes, though they probably taste slightly less sweet than Spanish or South American watermelons. Warmth and sunlight is really important for watermelons as this increases the sugar levels, so we haven’t quite got the sweetness in the crop we were after due to poor August weather, though they are nice and tasty.

“It’s always exciting when you bring new fresh produce to the market; that excitement never goes away! Produce is always changing and so are people’s eating habits. Ten years ago, if you’d said to me people would be eating hundreds of thousands of tons of sweet potatoes a week I’d never have believed you.”

Tea

Another more unusual crop is tea, which is now being grown by Johan Janssen of Special Plant Zundert (SPZ) at their nursery at Zundert in the southern Netherlands. As well as producing award-winning teas through his company JOAN dutch tea makers, a sister company Tea by Me supplies a specially selected variety of Camellia sinensis which consumers can grow in their own homes. As well as green tea, the company produces a range of white, oolong, and black teas as well as blends made with local Dutch herbs.

Johan explains that having developed a love for the drink at an early age, it was while travelling through China ten years ago that he discovered how good freshly prepared green tea was. It then took him eight years to develop a variety which was suitable for European growing conditions. “There were multiple technical obstacles such as plant hardiness, multiplication, costs, and crop health,” he says. “But we make continual steps forward.”He adds that it the support he has received from consumers has helped motivate him. “Consumers everywhere are convinced, but it can be challenging getting our message to a big enough audience; mainstream media exposure is a bottleneck in terms of marketing, but the customers are always positive and this is what charges us up. Other growers can sometimes be more pessimistic until they really understand what we want to achieve with our mission: ‘Let’s make tea local.

Vanilla

For every success story it is also important to remember that not every attempt to create a market for novel crops is successful. Dutch scientists at Wageningen University and Research (WUR) had been experimenting with the greenhouse production of vanilla since 2012, so when €350,000 of private and public funding were put into a product to commercially produce the crop in The Netherlands, the project backers were optimistic. “Most people have positive associations with vanilla,” said WUR scientist Filip van Noort. “This is why working on the sustainable cultivation and processing of vanilla with a group of enthusiastic horticulturalists, buyers and researchers generates a lot of energy and enjoyment.”

However, earlier this year the consortium admitted defeat, saying that this year’s harvest would be the last. Although vanilla attracts very high prices (up to €500 per kilo), which made it an attractive option for a country looking to increase the value of its greenhouse production, the price is highly variable and the crop is very labour intensive and relatively unreliable. The vanilla flowers needed to be pollinated daily by hand an there was no guarantee of commercial success, with the plants taking up to three years to produce harvestable pods. “We have managed to get the vanilla plants to flower and produce pods, but I can’t guarantee the harvest and that is necessary to make a good business case,” van Noort told Dutch reporters in February.

Alternatives

Other novel crops which have been cited as being worthy of consideration by Dutch and UK growers in recent years have included black pepper, figs, assorted fruit crops, and citrus. Whatever alternative enterprise growers may be considering, Johan Janssen emphasises that it is important to get as much help and advice as possible and not to try to set up a complete enterprise from scratch on your own: “Start collaborating and get the right partners all over the world,” he advises.