Sprout supply could be “an absolute nightmare” in the run up to Christmas thanks to low UK volumes and high import prices.
The outbreak of the pesticide-resistant Diamondback Moth (DBM) over summer devastated many brassica crops, including sprouts, while warm temperatures in the Netherlands affected growing conditions and have sent prices “rocketing”.
Sales manager at Total Produce Cornwall, Colin Putt, said he is warning customers of the difficulties in supply. “I think it will be an absolute nightmare,” he said. “Prices are up by 50 per cent over the last three days and they are set to rise further. Our supplier in Jersey had to plough his entire crop back in over summer, and it’s the first year we’ve imported from Ireland. Holland has faced the same issues.
“Demand is very strong, Dutch suppliers are putting the prices up and trying to slow the job down but it’s not having an affect. It’s only going to get worse. One grower told me ‘you’ll have sprouts for Christmas but we can’t guarantee how many you’ll get’.”
Total Produce hasn’t increased sprout imports yet, Putt added, but the company will do so if the UK volumes remain low.
Ireland's sprout growers have faced less disease and pest pressures this year, but yields are down due to unseasonably low levels of rain. Companies have exported around 30-50 tonnes of sprouts to the UK to fill the supply gap, but this is unlikely to be repeated before Christmas as yields will only be sufficient for domestic market demand, according to Pat Farrell, fresh produce development officer at the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA).
"We've even had Dutch firms ringing to enquire about importing sprouts," he said. "Maybe we will be able to export again after Christmas, but certainly not before. We lost a sprout grower at the start of this year when the ground was too wet and he went out of business, and we haven't replaced him, so yields were already down. Crops have been slow to grow as we just haven't had much rain."
Matt Jones, senior buyer at Reynolds, said UK growers left crops alone until DBM disappeared naturally, but this meant sprout plants grew too high. “They topped the sprouts out too late. Yields are poor and sprouts are small,” he said, adding that costs aren’t reflected as smaller sprouts are still sold at a premium at retail.
“Usually they are getting 6.5 tonnes per acre, at the moment they’re getting 3.5. It’s the same problem on Kalettes – they can’t get into the field to pick until 10 December.”
Jones said he expects the shortage to last until 18 December, but then the market could be “flooded” as crops catch up. Prices could then drop just before Christmas, he predicted.
Despite the shortage elsewhere in the country, managing director at TH Clements, Chris Gedney, said the company is in good shape for Christmas sprout supply, while high wholesale prices are benefiting growers. "We are confident in delivering Christmas sprouts on volume and on quality," he said. "Retailers may well have a narrower range off the back of national shortages. We're going to be doing some stalks this year, which we don't normally do, as there isn't a lot around. Demand is as strong as we've seen it for several years."
Commercial director Richard Mowbray added: "Average yields are back a bit on last year. Crops were slow to mature - as was the case across Europe - and this was compounded by the DBM issue. Some early crops were poor, but quality is now good. Clements as a business is in pretty good shape."