Salad crops and winter veg are seeing major shortages due to unseasonably cold temperatures in Italy and Spain and heavy rainfall before Christmas.
Peppers, cucumbers and courgettes are among those affected by cold temperatures in Spain, which is a key supplier to the UK during winter months. In Italy, where major storms in October caused flooding and delayed planting, and temperatures have recently been around the seven-degree mark compared to an average of 12, the Swiss chard, broccoli and leafy salad crops have been almost completely wiped out in some cases.
“We’ve lost almost all of the Swiss chard – we’d usually be sending around 20-30,000 heads, and we will have just under 2,000. Commercially, it’s a disaster,” said Clive Griffiths of importer Allied Farm Foods. “On broccoli, we would normally have around six or seven tonnes a week and we’ve had nothing since November. I’ve never known us to be short of Swiss chard over winter, it’s usually a very robust crop.
“For one grower, 60 per cent of his income comes from broccoli and he hasn’t produced a jot,” he added.
In Spain, Flemming Anderson of organic veg box company Riverford, said the biggest issue has been cold temperatures, which have caused some crops to stop growing.
“In Andalucia, on a good day it is 17 degrees in the day, but it’s been as low as six,” he said. “The variation in the temperatures – the plants just can’t handle it, they don’t know what to do. In Almeria, it’s been four degrees in the day and we are not working with heated greenhouses. Courgettes are very sensitive to temperature, when it’s cold they don’t grow.”
The weather issues on the continent come just before the UK growing season heads into the ‘hungry gap’, where new season British crops are not yet available. It is the only time of year Riverford suspends its UK-only box, due to lack of availability, and is when supply from overseas growers is most crucial. Last week, Riverford crop forecaster Hannah Croft warned that this year’s hungry gap will be longer than usual due to the weather in Europe.
Andersen said that although the current conditions are hard, they are not yet at the same level as last year, where severe snowfall struck much of Spain and led to shortages on several veg and salad lines. Instead, he pointed to the longer-term pattern of extreme weather and the increasingly evident impact of climate change.
“It’s not dramatic at the moment, what’s dramatic is climate change. Last year we had the floods and snow in Italy, but we haven’t had that yet this year. We had a lot of rain in Autumn, which is causing a problem now.
“The cold weather is stopping the greenhouse crops from growing, but that is normal. What’s not normal is going from summer into winter, without the two to three months in between. Then we go straight into 30 degrees again,” he said.
“In Italy and Spain, the main problems we face on climate change and growing veg is you no longer have spring and autumn, they don’t really exist anymore. That’s a huge challenge.”
Some of the only crops that have remained unaffected by the extreme weather, both in the UK with its drought and then wet conditions of 2018, as well as in Europe, are root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips.