Farmers and growers from the region share their views on the current 'supermarket crisis' which has seen shelves stripped of out-of-season fruit and vegetables. By Charlotte Smith-Jarvis


In lockdown it was flour. More recently, as avian flu gripped parts of the country, it’s been eggs. And this week it’s the disappearance of salad items (cucumbers, leaves, tomatoes, peppers) that’s gripped the nation and had shoppers hopping mad in the supermarket aisles. 

Naturally the effects have been devastating. I mean, will my family be able to cope without their weekend tzatziki fix? Who knows? 

On a serious note, how is it that modern Britain has, once again, found itself on a backfoot when it comes to feeding its population? And what will be done about food security in the future? 

Worryingly, statistics show around 80% of what we eat in the UK is imported. While the maths and economics of it all are far from simple, this figure is 20% higher than pre-WWI, when we produced approximately 40% of our own food (before forced rationing came in in 1917 due to enemy attacks on our supplies). 

A little fact supplied to me by food historian Monica Askay (and one which has stuck with me for years) – did you know that before WWI and WW2 we imported some 95% of our eggs, largely from China? 

It is utter madness.   

The instability of our fragile supply chain has never been so exposed. And local growers, and business owners working in the food sphere rightly believe the government should be doing more to ensure we all have grub to put on our tables now...and long into the future. 

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The topic of feeding our nation, all nations, is vast, however. Not everyone can afford organic this, or free-range that. But more can certainly be achieved. 

And that starts, I believe, with educating the public on the importance of choosing, cooking and eating seasonal ingredients. Ingredients that have been grown ‘up the road’. Ingredients that are likely to be more nutritious. And ingredients that will, crucially, save money if bought at the right time of year. 

Isn’t it time to teach children in schools about seasonality, the basics of cooking, and budgeting? To encourage telly chefs to bring home the hyper-local message? And for nutritional advisors and influencers to (instead of telling consumers they NEED to eat out-of-season strawberries and blueberries every morning) encourage them to load-up on the foods that will best serve their health right there and then, in that moment (today inulin-loaded leeks, and fibre-packed parsnips and celeriac)? 

The topic has Rebecca Mayhew, founder of Old Hall Farm at Woodton, hopping mad – especially when she thinks about the fact that approximately 40% of bagged lettuce (something customers are up in arms about) is routinely thrown away every year. 

“We will only stock what is in season,” she says proudly. “My kids look longingly at raspberries on the shelves in December and January, but know I’ll never buy them. We just have such a displaced food system. What frustrates me is the waste of energy. 

“We’re always told about cows ruining the planet, but the carbon footprint of a salad has to be considered, from the transport and exportation, to heating polytunnels in other countries to actually grow this stuff. The energy and water requirements to get these things on our tables is huge. If we used proper methods to account these things, honestly, we’d be horrified, I think. A bag of salad gives us less than 100 calories, but it probably takes around 5,000 calories to get it on the shelf! 

“We have wonderful seasonal veg in this country all year. But we’ve been spoiled. It’s such a first-world problem to worry because you can’t find the five types of lettuce you want at the supermarket. Haven’t we got bigger issues to think about, such as what’s happening in Ukraine, Syria and the Palestine?” 

Rebecca points out stories she’s heard of farmers having to abandon crops in the fields on warmer days, because customers are reaching for the leafier options they’ve been conditioned to associate with sunshine. 

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“And the sad reality is, we eat too much fruit over veg in this country.” 

Rebecca’s farm shop is currently a vibrant sea of green, boasting knobbly broccoli heads and clutches of kale. There are plans to future-proof the farm with a market garden. Onion and garlic sets are currently going in. “And we’re looking at greens and micro cresses. I think the food crisis will only get worse. The supply chain is completely broken when it comes to supermarkets...but I walked past a greengrocer the other day and they had a wonderful range. That speaks volumes.” 

Greg Harrison, of Sunshine & Green in Cavendish, says the government needs to look at (and likely overhaul) its farm subsidies which, he says, usually benefit land owners, not growers. He wants it to come up with sustainable, realistic solutions and incentives for people to grow food for their communities. 

One way would be to make more of county council farms. “Suffolk has 13,000 acres of these. It’s a lot! With the right business plan so many of these farms could be turned into something like we do here. Certainly, when I approached the council begging for four acres, they were ready to listen. They wanted to diversify their portfolio.” 

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Greg grows in an environmentally sensitive way, encouraging pollinators with flowers, and laying nitrogen-fixing plants such as legumes and clover in up to a third of his rented land for soil health. He says he’d like to expand, taking on an apprentice. “But getting started is hard. No one can afford to buy land around here. Renting is difficult unless you manage to get a council plot. If an acre or two becomes available, it’s usually swallowed into the closest farm.” 

The grower, who champions seasonal veg within his weekly boxes (delivered across west Suffolk) and available at Lavenham (this Sunday), Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury Farmers’ Markets, feels alone in his trade and strongly feels demonstrative change could happen locally if a network of people like himself was created. 

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“The local food system is so difficult,” he admits. “But I'm really lucky. I enjoy the fact customers are signing up at this time of year when we have things like cabbages, leaves and potatoes. They are loving this stuff. And they won’t be able to contain themselves, I don’t think, in the summer when we have the joy of offering peppers, tomatoes, beans, even flowers.  

“I’ve found my customer retention is really high because there is an understanding of what’s going on, and seasonality. These things taste better, and are better for you. I bet the tomatoes people are angry about not getting aren’t even worth eating! 

“I joke with people here that there’s an alarm on our tomatoes and I get to pick and eat the first one!” 

Greg is putting in strawberries for the first time this year, which will become an added extra in his veg boxes. Any spares will be frozen to make Sunshine & Green jam. Pear, apple and plum trees are also being planted. 

Typical contents of his boxes at the moment (available at include potatoes, carrots or parsnips, beetroot, celeriac or swede, cauliflower, garlic, leeks and kale or chard. “If I don’t have enough for everyone to have something in a box, I save it for the next week,” he says. 

Small boxes (feeding two) are £1, and large boxes (for a family of four) are £25, with Greg favouring choice and variety over bulking them out. “Who needs 2kg of potatoes every week? I love to mix it up to keep the boxes interesting. If I have some herbs that are looking nice, they’ll go in too. Honestly, most of us use a supermarket in some way or another, but we don’t need to panic about out-of-season produce in the way we are. 

“There are definitely some huge habits to change.