Faced with the prospect of a steady decline, the UK and Irish mushroom industry is in need of some major investment, while Polish production continues to flourish. Tommy Leighton and Elspeth Waters report.
The UK and Irish mushroom industry has suffered immensely in recent years. British production has virtually halved since the 1980s and 65 businesses have been forced to close in the past four years, leaving a total of 75 farms in Britain. Closures have resulted in around 3,200 job losses and the general outlook for the future is decidedly bleak.
“There is a certain inevitability about the direction in which the UK industry is heading,” says John Smith, md of Greyfriars. “We have seen massive reductions in production volumes here in the last 12 months, and I predict that by the end of this year, the UK industry will have halved in size again.” In the last two months, McGeary Mushrooms, a Northern Irish supplier of between 200,000lb and 300,000lb of mushrooms and around 1,300 tonnes of compost a week, and Norfolk producer Dewfresh have disappeared from the mushroom landscape.
“The mushroom industry is in an increasingly poor condition for several reasons,” says Jon Fuller, director of Waveney Mushrooms, a co-operative of six growers in Suffolk and Norfolk. “Supermarkets are still trying to force prices down and there has been a reduction in competition following Morrison’s purchase of Safeway. At the same time, packaging and transport costs continue to rise as oil prices hit hard.” In the short term UK growers will be trying to maintain stable volumes, while constantly working to reduce overall production costs. Fuller suggests forming co-operatives might be one way in which smaller growers can hope to compete with the larger suppliers favoured by the major multiples.
Andrew Middlebrook, sales director of Monaghan mushrooms, believes that the increasing competition between retailers is simply moving the product from one to another without stimulating underlying growth of mushrooms or helping to drive the product itself forward. And retailers are naturally accountable for the decline experienced by UK growers, he adds. “The biggest single issue for the UK industry is the extent of pressure in the marketplace, but it’s where we sell our product and that is that. Retailers are just trying to put products of the right quality at the right price on the shelves and consumers trust retailers to ensure it is coming from a good, secure source.”
Smith is also quick to remonstrate retailers. “The continuing downward pressure on prices is not doing UK suppliers any good at all,” he says. “It is increasing the opportunity particularly for additional Polish product to enter the market, as it is consistently high quality and very competitive. There is still a place for homegrown mushrooms, but the discrepancy between cost of procurement and production is so narrow, there is little scope for any “buy British” campaign to take off. Overall, it is a fairly sad outlook.”
While achieving high quality product used to be the growers’ aim, now the continual drive for volume increases, which has led to the preference for imported mushrooms, is resulting in significantly poorer products in store, says Fuller. “The long term situation will depend on the view point of the end customer. If it is considered acceptable to unnecessarily transport a perishable product half way around the world and lose 30 per cent of its shelf life then the industry will carry on the way it is going. But there really is no need to import mushrooms when we can produce them here,” he insists.
Adrian Sampson, director of South Down Mushrooms, is also Chairman of the Mushroom Bureau and Vice Chairman of the Mushroom Growers’ Association (MGA). As a small grower he does not supply the major multiples but is subject to the wholesale preference for import prices. “Aside from the issue of the cost to the environment in terms of haulage to get them here, the cheaper polish mushrooms are often quite good quality, but they do not match the consistency of local produce,” he argues. “The advantage of local growers is their ability to meet the quality and packaging sizes required. With imports wholesalers and multiples are stuck with the sizes dictated by the importers.”
With the prospect of little investment and even less interest from young growers, Sampson holds minimal hope for the future stability of the industry. “Growers are always wanting to invest in the industry, be it in pre-production, on mushroom houses or on packaging, but they are not seeing any return to make it worthwhile.” Likewise the children of growers see their fathers getting little return for the hours worked and are therefore not showing interest in continuing in the business. However, without investment Sampson fears growers like him will be unable to sustain production within a few years, especially if there are further price cuts. “The sad thing is we don’t need a costly input since mushrooms are not a price-sensitive article. An extra 5p for every pound can make a real difference.”