Richard Hackett: Vegetable growers need to take back control from retail bullies
When a market is left to the market to run itself, the laws of the jungle take over, and the greatest tyrants inevitably take the lead and run things for their own benefit.
This has certainly happened in Brassica production. At its core, growing vegetables commercially is not very complicated: you put a seed in the ground, nurture it until it is mature, harvest it, and put it in a pot.
For generations, cabbage crop production (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, swedes, etc.) followed this system, with a slight twist.
While a seed is establishing, the arsenal of pesticides is not available to protect the plants from being smothered by weeds, disease, pests, etc.
The answer has been to sow the seeds very firmly in a bed of plants until they are established and hardy, then pull them up and transplant them at the required intervals in larger fields where they can compete until maturity.
The ratio of used seed to final canopy was around 50-60%, which is roughly what we expect from grain production if we sow 450 seeds/m2 with the ultimate goal of 250 plants/m2.
The development of hybrid seeds around 40 years ago was touted as a revolution in vegetable production.
Hybrid cultivars were much more consistent and produced a more consistent crop that could be harvested in 1-3 visits to a field, rather than going through a crop up to 9 times as open-pollinated cultivars might do.
The savings in labor costs were significant and for a number of years growers benefited from the development – until the biggest tyrants, the retailers, took advantage of this by lowering the price paid to growers.
The problem with hybrid seed is the cost, and the 50-60 percent strike rate from the plant bed system would not wash.
Keyword development of a complicated propagation system with many plastic tunnels/greenhouses, very specific inert black peat, plastic trays, a lot of energy expenditure for artificial light, artificial heat and irrigation systems, coupled with a lot of work for laying out and stacking trays, filling peat in trays, operating complicated seeders and irrigation systems …all with the goal of getting that 50-60 to 95-plus germination.
This is the backbone of Brassica production today.
The problem is that nowadays the high demand for single-use plastic, peat, CO2-emitting energy and labor to get a cabbage in a pot doesn’t look so clever. Is that extra 30 part germination worth the environmental cost?
This is where the problem of jungle law comes in. The producer bears the costs of propagation; environmental costs are borne by society; and the advantage of the system lies with the retailers.
A rethinking of a production system is not possible in this structure.
More problematic is that the relentless focus on retailers over the last 30 years has removed from the system everything that is not directly related to ‘shareholder value’, leaving us with no research facility, no comprehensive advisory structure.
No one is tasked with looking into this issue and many others in the vegetable sector to see if we can do things a little bit better.
Not to overstate a totally discredited election slogan, but it is time to take back control of our fruit and vegetable sector.
Richard Hackett is an agronomist from North County Dublin and a member of the ACA and ITCA
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/tillage/richard-hackett-vegetable-growers-need-to-take-back-control-from-the-retail-bullies-41690714.html Richard Hackett: Vegetable growers need to take back control from retail bullies