NFU Horticulture & Potatoes Board chair Martin Emmett calls for urgent government action to help the UK horticulture sector continue to make a positive contribution to the British economy

I have rarely had a conversation in the last three years where the word “inflation” hasn’t been mentioned.

So it’s not surprising that the NFU’s recently commissioned Promar International report, which looked at how inflationary pressures are impacting horticultural businesses, showed stark results. It found that over the last two years, costs of production for growers have increased by as much as 39 per cent.

None of us will be surprised that a huge factor in the increase was due to key input costs, such as energy, fertiliser and labour spiralling. The greatest inflationary impacts came from energy and labour, and in a sector that has a high reliance on seasonal workers, a 24 per cent increase in labour costs in just two years is incredibly challenging. Naturally, numbers like this are completely unsustainable, particularly if costs are not recovered by customers, and many businesses have said they’ve shelved any plans for growth in the coming year because of it.

Fairness within the supply chain was also a key challenge highlighted in the report. In my role as chair of the NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board, I have the pleasure of meeting growers up and down the country. But time and time again I hear from businesses about how difficult customer relationships in the supply chain are. From lengthy contract negotiations to downward price pressures and contracts out of sync with production cycles, it makes it very tough to plan long term. We must use our voices to feed back on this behaviour in Defra’s live review into the horticulture supply chain, and I would encourage growers to respond to the consultation before it closes on 22 February.

Despite these challenges, as an industry we need to shout about the contributions we make to society and the economy, particularly as our sector is worth an impressive £5 billion in wholesale value to the UK economy.

To ensure we can continue to make a positive economic contribution, action is needed from government to support our industry. While the NFU campaigned hard to secure horticultural businesses access to the Industrial Energy Transformation Fund (IETF), there is more the government can do to back growers. Our sector is earmarked to grow in the government’s own food strategy, but there has been little more than words delivered since then.

The NFU Horticulture Growth Strategy, launched in spring 2023, set an agenda for policy change. It highlighted the need for long-term access to skilled labour, productivity investment, supply chain fairness, and a range of other critical support necessary to create growth in the sector. It has been a key source of evidence for the No.10 Farm to Fork Summit, the Independent Labour Review, and the House of Lords horticulture inquiry.

With a general election on the horizon that will provide opportunities and risks in equal measure, we must drive the promises of the current government forward and be quick to harness support for the sector from any new government. Our strength in membership is critical therefore and we are always keen for growers to get involved. There will be opportunities to join a regional or national board in the coming weeks and I’d urge growers to consider how you can play a bigger part in assisting the NFU in achieving the outcomes our industry needs.