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Europe’s Heatwave Produces Mixed Fortunes For Fruit Growers

Europe’s summer of extreme heat produces mixed fortunes for farmers with extensive sunlight hours producing the sweetest fruit in years, but benefiting heat-sensitive pests. The dearth of rain has caused grass to die and go into dormancy, making grazing impossible, while retarding fruit size growth, with apples significantly smaller than previous years. This puts growers into conflict with supermarkets, who demand perfectly shaped fruit, regardless of taste!

Apples & Other Fruit Trees

UK growers can draw on their experience of the drought of 1976, where it didn’t rain until September when predicting fruit volume. In that year fruit production was largely unaffected, although it was the following year’s crop that suffered. Trees this summer have all exhibited drought stress, which causes them to put more resources into fruiting at the expense of stem growth, on what new fruit buds are born. Indeed, temperatures above 25C can cause trees to stop growing altogether.

Last year severe frosts across much of the continent hampered apple production with output falling 21%. This year, farmers expect volumes to return to normal, although require rainfall for fruits to reach normal sizes. Luckily, as much of the fruit won’t be picked until September and October, any significant downpours can make the difference.

1997’s extensive dry spell led to the Sun newspaper inviting a Native American to perform a rain dance on the NFU deputy president Guy Smith’s Essex farm. Rain returned the following month, so perhaps he deserves to return.

Cherry trees are the major benefactor of this extended dry spell with cherries vulnerable to damage by rain and wind.

Soft Fruit and Other Greenhouse Fruits

With high temperatures equalling high demand, soft-fruit producers have have struggled to keep up, with shortfalls being made up by Dutch and Spanish producers. Fed by drip-feed systems, produce remain unaffected by drought, but growers do face challenges with maintaining the correct humidity, CO2 levels, flowering speed and vegetative/generative steering, which ensures the plant is putting resources into fruiting. Growers also have to try and control mites of all kind, whose population rockets in such conditions.  

Raspberries growers are the big winner with the longer season making up for a 20% shortfall, originating from this year’s harsh spring.

Industrywide

European growers had been hit hard with the closure of the Russian market in 2014, but are now set to benefit from U.S.’s trade wars, with China, joining India and Mexico, imposing substantial tariffs on US imports.

UK growers have the more pressing issue of dealing with a shortfall of seasonal labour, owing to rising incomes in south-eastern Europe, a weak pound and the perception that migrants are not welcome. Early estimates predict 60% of agriculture businesses are experiencing labour shortages, with one in eight in crisis. With much fruit picked by hand, there is the possibility fruit will end up rotting on the trees.

Labour shortfalls may accelerate the switch to automation with robotics specialist Fieldwork Robotics signing a collaboration agreement with Hall Hunter Partnership, supplier of Waitrose, M&S and Tesco. They are expected to start testing their prototype this year, which is complete with dedicated grippers, adaptable soft-arms and sensors and software that can identify supermarket-ready fruit.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

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