Sales pushed on by health and premium

In an established market there’s still room for growth, heard the British Tomato Conference.

There’s one undeniable advantage in the business of growing fresh produce – the end product promotes good health. And that’s the reason behind 70% of tomato purchases made this year, according to Kantar Worldpanel’s consumer research, an increase of 5% over the previous 12 months.

Kantar strategic insight director Edward Griffiths told the British Tomato Conference in September that, in the context of all the current initiatives to promote healthy eating, there was no reason for this trend to stall and that there was still room to align tomatoes better with health as a driver for consumption.

UK retail sales of fresh produce as a whole increased in value by 2.5%, to a total £10.9 billion, in the 12 months to September 2018, despite the fact that ‘promotions are creeping back to the market’. Tomato sales did better, increasing by 4%, or £30 million, to total £785m. Inflation, he said, is playing a role but consumers are buying tomatoes more often although volumes sold per shopping trip have dipped, mainly because packs have shrunk.

Price inflation in tomatoes is being propelled by growth in sales of ‘premium’ fruit because consumers were willing to ‘trade up’, explained Mr Griffiths. A quarter of all retail sales were of fruit in a premium range, with Tesco Finest taking the biggest share. “Tesco does a really good job of signposting the benefits [of Tesco Finest],” he said.

In a market where 93% of the population will buy a tomato this year, growth can be hard to find, he said. Discount chains Aldi and Lidl continue to attract new shoppers, and also stand out for the average number of produce items bought per trip which, considering the smaller ranges they carry, was even more significant, said Mr Griffiths. “They really push their fresh produce –­ Lidl with their ‘pick of the week’ and Aldi with their ‘super 6’ offer,” he said. Tesco had been taking notice of this strategy, he added, launching a ‘fresh five’ in their new discount brand Jack’s.

New ‘economy’ ranges have contributed to growth, “but at what cost to the category?” he asked. “The big four [retailers] might launch economy ranges to tackle disruption [from Aldi and Lidl] but if they don’t get it right they are going to find themselves treading water, selling products for less and not necessarily making any headway in winning shoppers back.”

Produce features in the baskets of around half of all consumers’ trips to the shops in an average year and the range of what they’re buying – what Mr Griffiths called the ‘repertoire’ – is increasing, reflecting the diversity of what people are now cooking. Traditional meals, such as roast dinners, are in decline, which is proving a challenge to staple vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. It was the lunchboxes that adults take to work, however, which he pointed to as an area where tomato consumption could be encouraged.

Reaching new audiences via social media was a focus for tomato growers’ promotional campaign this year, which for the first time was extended to a fortnight of activity. Account manager at PR agency Stand, Katie Elliott, said that one of their tactics was to engage with key ‘influencers’ – individuals with a significant social media following and already involved in celebrating British produce. These included Three Girls Cook, three finalists in the TV Masterchef programme; and Mindful Chef, which runs a box service delivering meal kits. Both websites have more than 40,000 followers on Instagram.

“Social media influencers are trusted by their audiences, so when they advocate for a group like the British Tomato Growers Association, their audiences sit up and listen. It was essential to find those who shared the same views and values as BTGA,” she said.

“Collaborating with such influencers helped significantly in putting British Tomato Fortnight and BTGA on the radar of thousands of engaged consumers.”

Brexit

With fewer than 200 days to go before Britain takes its leave of the EU, NFU president Minette Batters told the conference that despite her concerns over the potential loss of export markets and a labour supply that falls short of growers’ needs, she was optimistic about horticulture’s potential. “For those who embrace change, the opportunities are genuinely huge,” she said.

Ms Batters described the new two-year pilot scheme for seasonal workers, which will see a maximum of 2,500 from outside the EU permitted to work for up to six months on farms and nurseries growing edible crops, as a “step in the right direction”, achieved as it was “amongst this Brexit turmoil”.

Recalling a meeting that she and NFU director general Terry Jones had with the Prime Minister in June, Ms Batters said that although Theresa May was supportive of their ambitions for agricultural trade, the conversation became “awkward and stilted” when it came to the issue of labour. “This is very personal to her,” she said, “as it was under her watch [as Home Secretary] that the SAWS scheme ended.”

But she added that she loathed the “continual divide between high-skilled and low-skilled” category of jobs – the government has signalled its intention to prioritise high-skilled jobs in future immigration policy – because it was in danger of discouraging the next generation from getting involved in food and farming.

Challenges

Energy costs haven’t helped to make growers lives any easier this year. “Underlying energy costs have risen significantly but it looks like we’ll head back down to more sensible levels,” said FEC Energy technical director Tim Pratt.

With so little gas in store, and a colder than normal winter, gas day-ahead prices peaked at £2/therm in March, and are still higher than this time last year. “We’re in a better position now but it’s still a bit precarious,” he said. “Unless we get some government investment in storage, that’s where we will be staying.”

The whole-season price being offered for next summer kicked off the year at 40p/therm, increasing to 60p currently. With 54p/therm the price for summer 2020, 52p the following year, and 51p for 2222, there’s “light on the horizon,” he said.

With the renewable heat incentive scheme closing to new applicants in March 2021, Mr Pratt advised growers with any interest in heating from renewable sources to “start thinking about it now and decide whether it’s something for you or not.” The new tariff guarantee now means you can secure the rate before the installation is commissioned and fully accredited “as long as you deliver your project in the timescale you have given,” he said.

The attraction of renewable heat, though, is still held back for some growers by the inability to extract CO2for greenhouse enrichment cost-effectively. “Where we will get CO2from in the future is a big deal,” he said.

Another scheme that’s coming to an end is the climate change levy discount, which closed to new entrants in October. “If you’re building a new glasshouse next year, you’ll lose out,” he said. “As it stands, the last month [growers in the scheme] will get relief on the levy is March 2023. What happens then we don’t know.”

Another challenge for tomato production this year has been the new pattern of behaviour observed in late blight, the disease caused by Phytophthora infestans. Difficult to control with azoxystrobin, an EAMU for Ranman Top was issued in March but it has only protective activity.

University of Worcester plant pathologist Tim Pettitt, who is investigating the outbreak for AHDB, said symptoms were found very early, at planting. “Early on there were widespread plant deaths and evidence of foliar spotting,” he told the conference. “After those early fatalities, there didn’t seem to be any further disease spread, although some plants remained diseased, showing quite well-defined mid-brown stem lesions. Apart from reduced vigour and yield, these plants kept growing.”

The lesions advanced steadily along stems at a rate of 2-4cm/week. “Unusually for phytophthora generally, the lesions were not deep,” he said. “They generally started at the graft and often progressed up only one stem on the plant.”

Tests by Dr Pettitt have looked at the potential for the pathogen to spread and carryover to next season. Where stems crossed, the lesions didn’t appear to spread from one stem to another, he said.

Surface swabs from lesions or green stem areas taken at nurseries in May and August found no evidence of sporulation throughout the summer and there were no positive results for phytophthora on the surfaces of fallen leaves, glasshouse kit or other surfaces that could be harbouring the disease. After a period of very wet weather, in September, however, swabs from stem surfaces in one older glasshouse did test positive, which may indicate the start of sporulation, which is favoured by warm, moist conditions.

The P. infestansstrain that is responsible for these outbreaks has been identified by James Hutton Institute scientists as a single A1 genotype, which Dr Pettitt said was good news: the long-lived spores produced by sexual reproduction in the oomycete pathogen only arises when two mating types are present.

His advice for nurseries where this strain has occurred is to ensure the clean-up at turn-around is as comprehensive as possible. “Key is the disposal of the brown stems,” he said. “Don’t leave them in disposal bins as you could get sporulation overnight. Take them out of the glasshouse first and bag them up.”

Root mat repressed

A biostimulant has been shown in a second year of AHDB trials to have a suppressive effect on root mat disease in tomatoes.

In three commercial UK trials in 2017, Carbon Gold Biology Blend was applied during propagation at the two Dutch nurseries where the young trial plants were raised. Half of the plants received a further treatment at planting, applying the additive to the slab, so roots from the cube grew through it. In two of the trials, plants were grown on new coir slabs; in the third they were grown on coir slabs used once before, when plants had been infected by the disease.

Infection was found to be widespread in all three trials by June, despite the fact that few plants showed visible symptoms. But in two of the trials the Carbon Gold treatment had reduced the incidence of root mat by the time of the final assessment, in November.

As a comparison, the trials also included a biological treatment where plants were drenched every two months with a commercial mixture of the beneficial fungus Trichodermaand Bacillusbacteria. This reduced disease severity at only one assessment and actually increased incidence and severity in one of the trials.

Disease incidence as a whole was greater in plants grown on the reused slabs.

Carbon Gold commercial director James MacPhail said the biochar in the product acts as a reservoir, where beneficial microorganisms – the biology blend is enriched with trichoderma – can reproduce. “In our own tests at the end of a season we have found ‘sky-high’ microbial counts,” he said.

The project is also looking at biocides which could be used in end-of-season clean-ups.

MDS offers growers a route to management training

Members of the British Tomato Growers Association can put potential leaders from their businesses through dedicated management training now the association has joined Management Development Services (MDS).

MDS was set up more than 30 years ago to address the lack of practical skills which graduates wanting to work in the fresh produce industry need. Successful candidates, or ‘trainees’, are placed in four secondments with different member companies over two years, as well as undergoing training, coaching and mentoring – for which they are paid a salary by MDS, starting at £20,000. “I’m particularly proud that we try and get people into the industry who had not considered fresh produce as a career before,” said chief operating officer Saffy Connolly. “Over 80% of trainees take permanent roles with member companies on completion of their training.”

BTGA pays for the annual subscription to MDS, but grower members are charged a day fee for the time that apprentices spend with them on secondment.

From this year, the training offered by MDS is delivered as a Level 5 leadership and management apprenticeship with trainees achieving a Chartered Management Institute certificate in management – and it’s this that grower members of MDS can now access for their current staff. There is no age limit and applicants don’t have to be graduates. “It has been geared to our industry and far exceeds the standard required by government,” said Ms Connolly.

The £9,000 cost of the apprenticeship is funded by individual companies’ apprenticeship levy. The cost to those companies who fall below the levy threshold (a pay bill of more than £3 million) is £900, the balance met by government out of levy that has been collected but goes ‘unused’.