Gav's Monthly Roundup: May

This is the month where I write about the challenges of the Hungry Gap, right?

I set it up so nicely in my last letter, confidently declaring it was “when the overwintered British crops come to an end and the long wait for the bounty of produce summer brings begins”. But the overwintered British crops have not come to an end. Of course they haven’t. Nature plays by its own rules.

Best of British

In a normal year, if there is ever such a thing, this would be exemplified perfectly by cauliflowers. But this is not a normal year. They’re everywhere, and they’re plugging the gap like gigantic white corks. A fairly mild winter and ideal weather conditions since has created a constant abundance of cauliflowers that have been offered to us pretty much weekly since January. A few weeks back, when demand dropped due to the Easter caulidays, we were offered 20 lorry loads. TWENTY. If I was to line all of those caulis up I reckon I could get a fair way round the M25, but let’s face it, that needs no more disruption. 

Leeks have continued to astound us too. It’s almost unheard of to be taking British leeks in May but they’re still coming like there’s no tomorrow. Growers are constantly working to extend the season through improved growing and storage techniques, and through varietal development. And we’re delighted about this, even if we continue to confuse our customers by supplying them with the bottoms missing. This is something which occurs during harvest and is totally out of specification for retailers and wholesalers alike. With few other outlets, you could say the situation looked pretty bleek until they ended up in your boxes. I love it when we can tap into such niche opportunities!

Only recently have we started switching off the supply of root veggies, having enjoyed high-quality carrots and parsnips throughout April. Beets on the other hand continue to defy expectations; there's been a glut all season and they just keep on going. Get in my pickle jar! All of this might sound a bit like an extension of winter to you - and I suppose it’s hard to argue with that.  But it doesn’t mean we should switch off the supply and turn our attention to finding produce elsewhere for the sake of ‘eating seasonally’. I’d argue if nature is providing it, we should be eating it. Surely that’s true seasonal eating?

Buying British at the moment is beneficial on many fronts: it supports our home growers whose produce is at risk of going to waste, reduces our road miles and avoids the supply chain challenges that have continued to plague the industry. Rising fuel costs, haulier and ferry worker strikes, border delays and weather-related issues affecting produce quality in southern Europe have all played their part in a rather turbulent month. But does cauliflower have to be a winter vegetable? Does cabbage, really? Surely it’s what you do with it that counts!

Summer is coming

And yet, summer is coming. Trust me, we’ll all be pulling beans and courgettes and berries from our boxes before we know it. All that recent chard work in the kitchen as an Oddbox customer will be easy peas-y come mid-June. And the signs are already here, with two of my favourite spring friends, Rhubarbara and Asparagustavo, already creating excitement in the Oddbox HQ. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I have other mates too, ok?

Outdoor rhubarb, which started in April, is available in excess all over the country due to recent favourable weather conditions. We’ve got offers coming in from Herefordshire to Norfolk. That tantalising wait for asparagus is about to end too, with the floodgates in Worcestershire and Kent creaking like my grandad’s knees.

Asparagus is a product that starts off incredibly slow, with polytunnel-grown spears the first to arrive on supermarket shelves in small quantities. This is followed by the outdoor crop which teases modest volumes for a couple of weeks before the spear tsunami begins. Mild overnight temperatures are the trigger for daily growth that can sometimes reach several inches a day in the right conditions. 

Being an asparagus grower is incredibly hard going. It has a short season which requires lots of manual labour and there’s often a lot of produce which doesn’t meet supermarket specifications, despite some relaxation over this in recent years. Stems deemed too thin or thick, too short or long or wonky just don’t make the cut - literally. And that’s not to mention those with ‘open heads’. These are essentially ones that haven’t formed perfectly pointed tips: a cosmetic defect which is already troubling one of our growers.

A harsh reality

Sadly, our original asparagus grower has decided to pack it in altogether this year. Unable to make it work financially as a result of increasing costs and poor yields last year, alongside the difficulty of sourcing seasonal labour for such an intensive crop, he has switched to growing more cereals instead.

For all the stupid puns and useless jokes, it’s important to share the harsh realities that our growers face because of today’s broken food system. We’ve seen several of our smaller produce growers call it a day over the years and it breaks our collective artichoke hearts. It always seems to be the small-scale farmers who lose out, unable to cover their costs or to reinvest and scale up.

A staggering amount of food was left unpicked last year due to labour shortages and the risk is even greater this year. Seasonal worker agencies turned their attentions to Ukrainian and Russian workers last year to plug the gaps left by a predominantly Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian workforce in the yesteryears, but the war in Ukraine has led to them searching as far as Nepal, Indonesia and Uzbekistan.

The lack of returnees is a huge challenge for growers, as those who have worked on the farm in previous years can be up to 30% more productive than a first-timer. It’s not just about finding enough workers; they also need to be efficient in the fields too. Time will tell how severe the labour shortages will be this year. Until then, it’s time to shake off the cauliwobbles as we’ve got a whole load of sort-of-seasonal produce for you to get creative with. 

Yours in Fruit & Veg

Gav, Head of Operations

Oddbox Fruit and Vegetable box