Suffolk asparagus grower's recruitment headaches as harvest gets under way
PUBLISHED: 16:22 17 May 2019 | UPDATED: 16:22 17 May 2019
A Suffolk asparagus farmer is hoping for good yields this year - but admits Brexit uncertainty is causing him a recruitment headache when it comes to harvesting his crop.
Bruce Kerr, of William Kerr (Farms), at Hoo/Letheringham, near Woodbridge, has been planting out new batches of asparagus over recent years as the old plants reach their end point.
It takes three years for the plants to produce a useful crop, but they will then remain productive over a number of years - usually about 12 or so. The season usually runs from St George's Day (April 23) to midsummer (June 21), with the number of spears emerging and the date of their appearance dependent on favourable weather conditions.
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"It's been pretty normal. We had a hot Easter weekend and it's very temperature-driven," he says. "Last year nationally we had an above average hot May Bank Holiday and suddenly everybody had buckets of asparagus."
This year he had an "ideal spring" on his sandy farmland at Blaxhall, where the crop is grown.
"It's not too hot, it's not too cold - it's very temperature-dependent. The rain caused us a few issues last weekend. We had some hail damage but it wasn't hugely causing us a problem.
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"So far, so good. By the end of ths week we'll have picked the equivalent of what we picked in the whole of last year (when the plants had yet to reach maturity). The expectation was we were going to have significantly more to harvest this year and that definitely came to pass.
"This is the first time we have picked this field. We might pick this once more this year. This went in in 2017."
The growing season goes through to September, when it goes back into the crown, and effectively hibernates until the warm temperatures in spring coax it out again, he explains.
"We have a pick just after Easter, then it's cooled down a bit. It went up to 12 tonnes a day and it's just eased down now to 9.5t yesterday," he said. "We are comfortably on target to pick 35m spears this year.
Fresh asparagus takes great raw, he says, but he's also been experimenting with creating the perfect soft-boiled egg and asparagus soldiers combination by lightly steaming the spears then quickly plunging them in cold water to keep some of their rigidity for plunging into the egg.
Bruce's workforce expands to a maximum of 90 at the height of the season and he can usually depend on some experienced pickers from Poland and elsewhere. This year he has had to use agency workers to boost the picking team, although he would normally recruit most direct. "The message they are getting from the media is there's no food on the shelves (here) - you go there and there'll be nothing to eat. It's as easy for them to go and work in other parts of Europe, and there are no currency issues and they are part of the European Union.
"It's the uncertainty, and once the uncertainty has gone, however it works out, they'll come," he says.
Bruce is deputy Suffolk Show director this year, and looking forward to a three-year term starting after the 2019 event, which takes place on May 29/30.