With many UK supermarkets limiting the number of fresh vegetables customers can buy because of shortages, one salad leaf grown locally in Hampshire remains in good supply thanks to the unique way it is grown – watercress.
Spain, where many winter vegetables and salad crops are grown for the UK market, has been hit by bad weather and transport disruption, resulting in widely-reported shortages of fresh produce.
One crop that has been able to ride the storm there, however, is watercress.
The Alresford-based Watercress Company moved a team of British experts to Jerez in Spain 20 years ago to train farmers there in the skills needed to grow watercress for the UK market.
Today, Spain is the second biggest grower of commercial watercress, after the UK. Over winter, UK beds are only partly cropped because of the lower light levels and harder frosts, so that period is spent preparing for the UK season which starts in May, and Spanish grown supply is used instead.
In Spain, using techniques honed over 20 years and a sophisticated system of water recirculation that mimics the natural springs in which watercress is traditionally grown, the growers were able to come through the frosts that affected Jerez in January and February with crops intact.
Good supplies of watercress are now readily available and the UK packing factories that buy watercress and other salad leaves to supply supermarkets, are using more watercress to help supplement the less-available leaf varieties in mixed packs. Mono bags of watercress are also sold.
Tom Amery, MD of The Watercress Company, said: “We are very lucky that watercress is so resilient. Provided the day temperature is above 14ºC, it needs neither heating nor protection, unlike other salad crops.
“Demand for watercress is high because it is able to fill the gap left by other salad leaves whose harvests have been dramatically affected by the weather.
“We are currently bringing in 32 tonnes of watercress every week but I estimate that 50 tonnes per week are currently being sold in the UK.
“We rely on our Spanish-grown crops to help us maintain all-year-round supply of watercress but, at the moment, it is helping to keep the UK in salad – full stop.”