Retailers’ obsession with an even shape leads to a massive waste

PERFECT weather as March gets into its stride; cold, bracing and with a chill wind. When the sun comes out it is very pleasant, but the main thing is that it is drying the land, and fast. We are on to the driest fields at Crouchlands with nitrogen, and by the end of this week we will have covered most if not all the silage fields.

The second application is being applied at Tillington as the yearling heifers are getting short of grass, which is perfect. If I am not worried about the amount of grazing in front of the animals now, it will be out of control later in the season when it really gets going.

I am organising some grass drilling on the last couple of paddocks at Crouchlands in need of renovation, and although it is very early, if I wait and it turns wet in April I could miss the window of opportunity.

Frantic activity in the garden as grass is mown for the first time, following the return of the mower which was in for a pre-season service. I have even cut the grass on the side of the farm drive, which will now leap out of the ground and demand to be cut again very soon I suspect.

The seeds in the vegetable garden are all under plastic, the first time I have employed the technique, and I will be harvesting the first rhubarb this week, which is always a treat.

The last of the maize fields are being ploughed this week, which puts us well ahead and ready for working down the seed beds and drilling next month. Just to add to our workload, the British Cattle Movement Service have decided to come and visit (again), and insist that every animal is put through the race, ear tags read, all passports to match, and movement records etc; to be checked.

All very time consuming with several hundred animals to be dealt with, and we are short staffed to boot as Adrian is running the herd with an assistant for the time being.

Last week, I visited a very large horticultural business, who supplies a major retailer, and I was also invited to New Covent Garden to see and hear all about the £1 billion re-development programme for the market.

Both visits were very interesting and highlighted the way horticulture has changed in this country over the last 35 years or so, as major retailers became bigger and eventually dominant in certain areas.

The biggest difference for me was the retailer’s obsession with uniform, blemish free, incredibly good looking produce, and Covent Garden’s focus on taste. Food should surely be about great taste, and not waste, as produce that is too small, too large, the wrong shape, or with blemish are rejected by the thousands.

The Lee Valley is an interesting area of great historical interest in horticulture.

For over a hundred years, large areas of glass have been established in this area that runs from the East End of London up towards Hertford. The close proximity to London meant that together with ease of transport (water) organized produce has fed the city since the 1800s.

The Dutch and the Danes were prominent in this area in the early days, putting their expertise of growing fruit and vegetables under glass to good use. During the Second World War, many Italian prisoners of war were put to work in the Lee Valley, assisting with the great need for home grown food during that time.

Many Italians stayed, or returned with their families, and today, there is a great Italian presence in the Lee Valley, having taken over from the Dutch.

I visited a family business which is very large in that it has 100 acres of Glass, with a further 100 acres in Spain, in order to maintain continuity of supply throughout the year. Most of the produce is grown with the aid of hydroponics, but they also have organic vegetables grown in soil (where there are many more problems).

The production these days is truly staggering, with between 150 and 170 cucumbers grown per square meter per year, or 22kg of tomatoes per meter. This company supplies 500,000 cucumbers a week, rising to 1.25 million a week in the summer.

I watched the red, green and yellow peppers being graded, and then packed for the supermarket. It is still very labour intensive, and many people are employed on the packing lines.

I saw a 40 per cent rejection rate on the red pepper line and had to be shown the microscopic blemishes; before watching the cucumbers (which have to be straight) being cellophane wrapped.

I saw some very special peppers being grown under licence, which are ‘snacking’ peppers; peppers you can eat from the narrow end as all the seeds are at the other, very sweet and really tasty.

Covent Garden is 800 years old, and was moved down near Vauxhall in 1974. Since then the growth of major retailers has meant that the market is no longer used, as major retailers deal direct these days.

This means that since I last visited many years ago, very little fruit and vegetables are traded in the traditional way. Half the market is now occupied by distribution companies, who also buy from the warehouse, leaving very little market trading.

There are 2500 businesses operating in New Covent Garden, and although it operates differently, if you eat out in London, produce would have been supplied from here.

They cater for all restaurants and food outlets, including Michelin star, where great taste is everything. Catering companies require large carrots and large cauliflowers for example, where there is less waste, different to supermarkets buying direct wanting small carrots and cauliflowers for small families.

We had a good walk around, and I saw a great deal of British produce, but also food from around the world; chocolate tomatoes from Syria, peeled garlic from China (!), and Scotch Bonnet peppers, which are certainly not for snacking!

The flower market was glorious, and again had all sorts of exotic plants, as well as more traditional. The narcissus had such a delightful aroma, that any depression would surely be lifted by spending some time here.

The billion pound development proposal is well under way, with six companies tendering and working with the Board and the authorities.

This has been going on for a few years, and if it was given the green light, building would not start until 2013.

It involves re-developing the whole area, putting up many buildings, a new market fit for purpose in the 21st century, a park which would benefit the residents and much more. I wish them every success in progressing this visionary scheme.