David Walker chose his words deliberately when asked to identify his biggest challenges in operating a 10,000-acre vegetable farm.
A soft-spoken farmer, he is uncomfortable being interviewed. Nevertheless, sitting in his small office in the farm headquarters barn, he articulates the issues most taxing as manager of large, diversified farm.
Like his peers, the every day demands of producing good crops are almost secondary to those things most troublesome to his ability to farm profitably. They are the things more out of his control than the weather.
It's paying higher fuel taxes than his competitors; marketplaces where he is at an unfair advantage for any number of reasons, mostly political. Environmental restraints he encounters his competitors do not and increasingly greater quality demands from consumers without commensurate price increases are two more issues that make his job tougher each year.
Strawberry producer Harriett Duncalfe seconds Walker and adds as a specialty crop grower, gaining access to crop protection products like commodity farmers have is a growing problem for her farm. Specialty crop growers often are left out of new product development, and older products are disappearing. She also wants consumer demands to keep up with her ability to produce increasingly high quality strawberries. She likes the idea of more promotion for increased strawberry consumption.
5,000 miles away
The issues important to Duncalfe and Walker are not unique. They are the same concerns of farmers whether they are in Salinas, Calif., or Yuma, Ariz. However, Walker and Duncalfe farm 5,000 miles from California and Arizona in the United Kingdom in a region called “The Fens,” nearly three-quarters of a million acres of the richest farmland in the England about 100 miles north of London.
It is the largest plain in the British Isles, and remarkably similar to California's San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta. Both are identified by levees, rechannelization of rivers and drainage systems that have turned marshland into highly productive farmland. “The Fens” is rich in peat and silt soils that grow just about anything weather will permit.
Since Roman times man has tried to drain The Fens. In the 1640s drainage channels were sufficiently well engineered to start the drainage process. Dutch experts were brought in the 18th century; rivers diverted, and wind pumps introduced to keep the salt water at bay. Dutch windmills still dot the landscape, but it was not until steam pumps were introduced that the drainage was fully successful.
Annual rainfall is about 25 inches per year, and it is frequent enough during the growing season to dryland farm vegetables.
Just like the Delta and “The Fens” are strikingly similar farming areas, so are the farmers of the UK and the U.S.
Walker farms in the county of Lincolnshire near the town of Spalding and manages a diversified farm called Lincolnshire Field.
Harriett farms with her husband Henry just outside the village of Friday Bridge in Cambridgeshire County. The Duncalfes are large strawberries grower and part of a growing number of European “tunnellers,” producers who grow crops under large plastic tunnels that look like Quonset huts.
Western Farm Press was the guest of Gidon Bahiri, an agronomist with Omex, a solution fertilizer formulator and marketing company in the UK. Omex also operates a small a plant in Madera, Calif., in a joint venture with Western Farm Service, to supply products to U.S. growers.
Struck by similarities
Bahiri travels to the U.S. annually. He is struck by how similar farming in the UK is to the U.S. and was eager to show how farmers in his home country are not unlike American producers.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about farmers on both sides,” said Bahiri. “Fields may be smaller in the UK than the vegetable and strawberry fields in Salinas. Yields are a bit less, but overall I think they have more in common than they both realize.”
Walker's primary crops are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes and Brussels sprouts. While it freezes in the winter, the weather is mild enough to overwinter some vegetable crops for early spring harvest.
He markets his crops throughout Europe and one of his key customers is Wal-Mart, which owns a chain of supermarkets in the UK called ASDA. The familiar Wal-Mart round, yellow happy face adorns ASDA signage to identify ASDA as part of the “Wal-Mart Family.”
Supermarkets are common in the UK and the rest of Europe, but they take an appearance in their produce departments of the literally thousands of small markets that line the streets of European cities. Bright, colorful produce in the small markets beckon strolling shoppers. In the dead of winter, it is amazing to see the fresh produce in these markets.
Supermarket produce departments mimic these small produce stands. The produce is displayed in packing boxes like shoppers see in the street markets and town square farmers markets.
However, these supermarkets do not dominate like in America. And there seemed to be few giant warehouse discounters. Rural England looks much like rural America in the 1950s with many small but well-stock retail stores.
While the UK seemed like America 50 years ago, the challenges farmers face are identical to what American producers face.
Asked to identify his biggest challenge, Walker said it is the “unlevel playing field.” He pays more for fuel than is European competitors. He has fewer chemical choices than farmers in countries like France, Italy and Spain.
“An example of what I am talking about is that trucks haul freight into my area from Belgium and France where fuel costs are half of what we have to pay,” said Walker. “A truck can fuel up 150 miles from here at half the cost of our local truckers and drive his load to our area; unload and then underbid our local truckers. It's unfair and it hurts our local economy.
“The UK also has health and safety laws other European nations do not,” he added, “We are all supposed to be part of the European Community, but it is not always a level playing field.”
Prices are lower than Walker would like. Part of the problem there is increasingly fewer buyers.
Like his U.S. peers, Walker is seeking new technology to cut costs. The day Western Farm Press visited his farm, he was trying out a new John Deere rubber track tractor.
“We are also using GPS to map out fields for soil sampling and nematode detection,” said Walker.
He is reducing his costs where he can. One area is by switching from transplants in some fields to seeding. “Seed quality is much better now and with the precision planters we have, we can get stands as good as transplants,” he said.
“It is a struggle farming in the UK. Vegetable growers do not get subsidies, and we have to reduce our costs wherever we can,” he said. “We have taken over five farmers in the past year — farmers who have gone out of business.
“Consumers want high quality, cheap food yet farming costs keep going up,” he said.
The Duncalfe's use a combination of field- and tunnel-grown strawberries to supply supermarkets and consumers with fresh UK strawberries from March to November.
According to one report, more than a third of UK strawberries are grown in tunnels.
Harriett said the tunnels serve two purposes: earliness and to protect the fruit from rain. Other than the tunnels, the growing method is very similar to what you'd see in Salinas or Watsonville, Calif. Duncalfe added tunnels are now being marketed in the U.S.
Harvesting is alternated between the three- and five-row tunnels depending on the weather. The ribbed tunnels are covered with either white or black plastic. The plastic can be rolled up or down the tunnel's metal ribs, depending on weather conditions. Workers pick three times per week inside the tunnels.
The growing beds are wide, covered with plastic mulch and drip irrigated. In some tunnels, Harriett grows autumn market strawberries in long, plastic planters filled with soil less media of coconut coir.
Unlike Walker, Harriett has traveled to the U.S. and can draw comparisons. One is the impact of phasing out of methyl bromide. UK strawberry producers have weaned themselves off methyl bromide, she said.
“I think we accepted sooner the fact we would lose methyl bromide and have been working on alternatives longer than in the U.S.,” she said. She said her two alternatives are chloropicrin and Basamid.
“I like to use Basamid because as I grower I can apply it,” With chloropicrin, UK law requires it be applied by a commercial operator.
Like her specialty crop counterpart grower in the U.S, Harriett said she is losing crop protection chemicals. “What we need is something like the IR-4 program they have in the U.S.,” she said. Some of the products she now uses are under government pressure to ban, and she needs alternatives. However, major chemical companies do not want to go to the expense of registering products or support challenged chemicals for use on specialty crops. Government-funded IR-4 does the research and testing normally performed by chemical manufacturers.
“There are some new biopesticides and other products that could really help us, but we need help like the U.S. IR-4 program to get them registered for us,” she said. “We need our government to help us out like the U.S. strawberry growers have.”
Her fruit is marketed through a large cooperative, Kentish Gardens (KG). KG markets about 50 percent of the strawberries grown in the UK. The Duncalfes also get technical growing help from KG since there is nothing like a university cooperative extension in the UK.
“I really like the five-a-day program. I think Europeans are like the Americans — they want to eat healthier. Strawberries work well in that, and we are working on promoting strawberries more,” she said.
Strawberries are available year-round in the UK. Imports from elsewhere in Europe and even Mexico fill in those winter months when UK strawberries are not available.
The 5,000 miles separating Fresno, Calif., and Sunday Bridge, England did not seem so distant after a visit to The Fens countryside on a cold, cloudy November afternoon.