Friday, 20 February 2015

Cinderella is Bankrupt

Cinderella is Bankrupt

Channel Television had this report:

"Reacting to the news that the vegetable grower, Amal-Grow, will pack up production, Jersey's Environment Minister Steve Luce said it will be a real blow to the local market and consumers.”

“Amal-Grow supply fresh vegetables - and salad crops when in season - for shoppers in both Jersey and Guernsey through Channel Island Co-Operative Society, Waitrose and Sandpiper Food Hall stores.”

“The Co-op's Operations Manager Mark Cox said he is disappointed that Amal-Grow are looking to close their business as the Co-op spend £1 Million each year on their produce. He said his customers prefer local produce but the supermarket might now be forced to import vegetables from the UK.”

Below I print the reaction of one of my correspondents. I should mention that I agree with it in places, but do not wholly endorse it regarding food quality. I do buy local produce, and although it may be more expensive, I do find the quality and taste is usually better than imported, refrigerated, and often tasteless produce.

I think we do need local produce, for a number of reasons:

Food security – while we have not got enough land area to wholly sustain the local population, it is important to keep at least a toe-hold in local produce. The island is dependent on imports, and it is not sufficiently realised that food chain is like a delicate jugular vein, easily ruptured. At present fuel costs have gone down, but as they go up, food prices will rise commensurately.

Education – not enough has been done to educate people about the wasteful nature of our food chain. Food is sourced from many miles away to ensure the same produce is available all the year round. The ethical concerns about this are kept very low key. For a start, long-distance food hauling releases harmful greenhouse gases. It is also incredibly wasteful of fossil fuels to transport food long distances. But while it is cheap to do so, and people buy it, the market trumps ethics.

Seasonality – the local market is seasonal, and seasonality, because of the year round nature of sourced long distance produce, means that nothing much is seasonal – there are strawberries on the shelf as I write. The loss of the rhythms of the year is something which we badly need. It teaches us that we can’t just have what we want when we want it, like a spoilt child.

But I agree totally with Adam Gardiner over the States. Since Agriculture and Fisheries became part of Economic Development, it has become the Cinderella of Jersey. Finance has top priority, and tourism moved up with the Visit Jersey initiative. But when he was talking about the future to the Chamber of Commerce, Ian Gorst not once mentioned agriculture.

That shows just how low a priority it has been given by the Chief Minister, and the last Minister for Economic Development, Alan Maclean was also focused on the other island industries to almost the complete exclusion of agriculture.

This Cinderella has been neglected by the States, and won’t be going to the ball because her two sisters, Finance and Tourism, have taken the lion’s share of the funding. And don’t expect a fairy godmother to supply a solution. This is the real world, not a fairy tale.

When asked a question about agriculture at the Chamber Lunch, Ian Gorst replied that he wanted to see funds directed to where they would do most good, and not necessarily the larger conglomerates. If ever there was a message that was sent out that Jersey was closed for overseas businesses coming here, that was it. If anyone from Amal-Grow heard that, how do you think they would react?

But perhaps other questions need to be asked. How did they fail to make a profit when the previous owner did? Or is it perhaps that they did not make enough of a profit for their shareholders? I’m not wholly convinced we are getting the whole picture here.

The net result, if they retain the Jersey Royal part of the business, will be an asset stripping exercise, and it perhaps should also be asked how committed they were to the whole business, and not just that bit they wanted.

Adam Gardiner’s Comment on the Amal-Grow news

Inevitable . The economies of scale are just not there as we export very little of that same produce that proudly displays ‘Genuine Jersey’ in the supermarket shelves. We have moved from extensive commercial growing to what in the UK is often termed as market gardening - although there is precious little of that.

The supermarkets have needed to react and have been forced to import supplementary stocks to satisfy demand. The reality is (and this comes direct from the horse’s mouth - if a well known supermarket chief will forgive that expression) that imported produce, where there is a choice, outsells local produce 6:1. That statistic has very little to do with price but everything to with quality - the local produce is (sorry to say) inferior in many respects, and continuity of supply has also become a serious issue.

Who should we blame?

Well, quite a few actually

The growers and marketing groups want the big one-off profits that can get from the Jersey Royal and shun the harder to make profits in growing other crops for local consumption. At the same time the growers have protected their land rights so that no other enterprise has been able to establish an alternative supply. The Thorpe Report determined that an average family of 6 people (as it was then) needed around 146sq.yds of land to be self sufficient year round. The rough extrapolation of that says that for Jersey to be self sufficient just 240 hectares need be in cultivation. Jersey is roughly 12,000 hectares. To put into perspective, St. Mary measures 650 hectares - so just less than half of that Parish in area.

The public as said earlier are NOT buying local produce despite what many people say to contrary. The public are simply not telling the truth. We are kidding ourselves.

However, the largest proportion of the blame must lie with the States who have simply not invested time and energy into agriculture or have passed legislation that would allow young entrepreneurs to enter the industry by compelling landowners to release land. If, for example, a field that remained uncultivated were to be ‘surtaxed’ in some way, that may provide the necessary incentive to either bring it into production or for the owner to give a long-term lease to an independent tenant grower

Also, the States are forever re-zoning land. Land prices in Jersey are such that a field of around 5 verges has a value of over £3m if it can be re-zoned for building. When farm buildings (house, attendant barns, hard standing etc) themselves occupy at least 2 verges you can see why growers are reluctant to continue in growing when they could pocket at least £1.5m, buy a comfortable flat at Castle Quay, and remain substantial landowners into the bargain. No incentive to stay in growing and the States have done nothing to address that.

If nothing else, this must be fantastic news for Lucas Bros and Holmegrown - the last two independent growers of any size.

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