Old themes were explored in a new format of this year’s FPJ Live, with Professor Tim Lang's rallying call to the industry to “demand more and be noisy” the take-home message.
With a turbulent year still throwing up surprises, there was no shortage of talking points on the day, from Sainsbury’s big merger with Asda, and Tesco’s new discount store Jack’s, to the latest political, technological and logistical developments.
Nationwide Produce's managing director Tim O’Malley said: “In some ways it is the best of times, and also the worst of times”, reflecting an industry that is half full or empty depending on your outlook.
The Food Foundation’s Jo Ralling capped off the day with the stunning news that ITV had donated £2 million worth of top advertising spots to promote fruit and veg consumption by children, which Ralling described as “unprecedented and extraordinary”.
Ralling said: “ITV so far have been an amazing partner, they want to do the right thing, they are parents, they know and recognise we have a health crisis. I’m excited for their ambition.”
The Food Foundation already has top advertising agencies Adam & Eve/DBB, and Taylor Herring on board for free, as well as financial backing by six retailers - Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Lidl, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Iceland.
Congolese-French chef Mick Élysée gave a good example of how to easily turn fresh produce into something delicious, whipping up a ceviche in ten minutes on stage, including asparagus, heritage tomatoes and beetroot.
Further good news came from Berry Gardens’ chief executive Jacqui Green, who unveiled plans to double turnover by the mid-2020s, as well as growth ambitions from Ali Capper's English Apples & Pears to increase UK-grown apple consumption to 60 per cent of the market.
Green said: "We’ve got some really ambitious growth plans, and maybe Brexit might have a big influence on it, but we’re looking to double the size of the business by the mid-2020s." That would see turnover increase from almost £350 million to around £700m.
The ambition shown by Capper and Green matched Professor Tim Lang’s exhortation from the big screen for the industry to be bold in its strategy. “You’re the good news…broadly for your sector this is a great time and you need to take the high moral ground,” Lang said.
“Be strong and be powerful and take it to the public… You need to demand more, be noisy and stop being quiet, you won’t get anywhere if you’re quiet.”
Trickier subjects included this year’s brutal weather extremes, Brexit uncertainty, labour costs and shortages, as well as the intense retail price wars, all of which has seen growers margins take a hit in recent years.
An FPJ Live poll revealed audience members overwhelmingly believed the main outcome of Tesco’s new outfit Jack’s would be to intensify the price war.
On top of that, Sainsbury’s proposed merger with Asda has left growers and suppliers concerned about further price deflation. Sainsbury’s buying managers Finbar Cartlidge and Julien Roberts were tight-lipped on the merger, saying their work will continue to be serving Sainsbury’s customers.
Roberts said: "We’ve been focused on the same strategy for nearly 150 years. You can’t afford to panic in a market place like this. We’ve got a good plan and we will go about implementing that plan. We’re willing to make some adaptations, but the core strategy will remain the same across the business.”
Labour still dominates growers' concerns however, as revealed in an FPJ poll, but speakers Hayley Campbell-Gibbons and Ali Capper both praised the recent success of the NFU to lobby the government into piloting a new seasonal agricultural workers' scheme, admitting 2,500 non-EU workers each season as of next year.
“We are the only sector in the country that has had any form of immigration-related policy and it’s been put in place before the immigration bill; it’s a miracle. We need to take heart from this chink of light,” Capper said.
Labour was also a concern across the logistics chain, with O’Malley revealing almost all his 80 floor staff at Nationwide Produce come from abroad, and Gavin Knight, managing director of Halo, echoing similar concerns.
Knight also spoke about the exciting developments at Halo’s 108,000 sq ft, state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled distribution facility at London Gateway, on the cusp of opening its doors, having begun paying rent in the last three weeks.
One of the highlights of the day was a Parkinson-esque interview with the three Burgess brothers, reminiscent of bygone TV show This is Your Life.
They showed how the future still belongs to the industry, discussing an unbroken family line in fresh produce dating back to 1898, and continuing with the next generation getting involved in their business.
Emily Cliff, chairman of the Under 40s Fruit Growers, told the audience that she was also seeing new generations coming through her organisation.
“We’ve definitely seen strength in the last few years, and our organisation is gaining momentum and members. I’ve seen more young people join in, the main thing is trying to keep those people involved,” Cliff said.