A Very Hungry Gap

Taken from the Peelings – the weekly newsletter sent out to members of Go Local Food.

harvest vegetables

As farmers of seasonal vegetables we are now familiar with the hungry gap, which actually comes in 2 parts. The first is a shortage of leaf / lettuce in January/February when temperatures are too low for growth to supplement our hardy winter crops such as kale, sprouts and parsnip. The second gap is when our winter crops finish but our spring summer crops are not ready. This is usually around May/June depending on the weather. This is when we have lots and LOTS of leaf greens. It wasn’t until I joined GO Local Food that I realised our hungry gap was so long each year – just shows how food imports distort our perception without us even realising it.

During these months when our fields and tunnels produce less we supplement our shares with seasonal veg bought from larger producers who, not only have more growing capacity, but also storage space. This year’s hungry gap is proving to be more of a challenge for a couple of reasons.

First, last year’s late production due to the weather – remember we were still harvesting tomatoes in November – meant there was no room in the tunnels to sow seeds that would produce veg for January to March (mainly the leaves), which means we are a bit short on our own supplies.

Secondly, last years weather pattern affected all UK farmers – not just us – consequently yields are generally lower and this of course pushes up the prices during the hungry gap. We have to be careful to balance the books and not spend too much on vegetables bought in.

This situation could get worse. If you listen to any of the food programmes, farmers and food suppliers are worried. Perhaps they always are but the uncertainty about future trade with Europe (notice I tried to avoid the ‘B’ word) adds a new dimension. Our dependency as a nation on food imports is staggering (2.5 million lorries through Dover each year, 5 million tons of vegetables, a quarter of our food, 90% of lettuces, 80% tomatoes from Spain and Italy) as is our expectation for cheap food delivered all year round – no hungry gap! More vegetables could be sourced in the UK, at a higher price, but at the moment tomatoes don’t grow in UK without additional help. There is much concern nationally about food security and the economic impact of a no-deal or disorderly departure from the EU.

Interestingly Riverford, famous for supplying 70,000 veg boxes per week, manage their hungry gap by importing 80% of their green vegetables from Europe. They also have their own farm in France to help meet the hungry gap demand. Their figures tell them that 4 days of lost trading could wipe out their profit and a fortnight could bankrupt this 30 year old business.

Food is much more complicated and precarious than we might think. The good news is that last year’s poor harvest and the European situation has provoked a bit of debate nationally about our food and the future might just be more of us – small scale farmers. Who knows? In the meantime, we’ll just carefully negotiate this year’s hungry gap and enjoy our vegetables.