October has been a meat, vegetable and “non-dairy “dairy month for me and Miguel. Mid-month, I was the closing speaker at the UK Cucumber Conference. It’s been a torrid time for fresh produce growers: input costs through the roof; excruciatingly high and volatile energy prices; pervasive labour shortages on-farm and in the supply chain; escalating retail food prices (14+% in UK in October) but the reverse for most fruit and vegetables as retail prices have been lower than last year (notwithstanding 20+% increases in key production costs) as traditional supermarkets wage price wars with buoyant hard discounters such as Aldi and Lidl; and, for cucumbers and other salad crops in the UK, the unwanted additional pressure of import competition from similarly beleaguered horticultural producers in the EU and elsewhere. The crowd attending the cuke conference showed remarkable “best foot forward” resilience. Wishful thinking or last man standing doggedness?!
Protected crop growers, i.e. those using “greenhouses” requiring heating during cooler parts of the year, know exactly what they have to do in terms of reducing costs through use of renewable energy (solar panels, harnessing waste heat, etc.), automation to reduce labour, applying technological solutions to reduce pesticide use. In history, they’ve shown an ability to produce more quality product using less inputs. The benefactor has been the consumer – paying lower and lower prices for higher quality produce! Improving production efficiency has been the forte of the horticultural industry. Improving marketing performance has lagged woefully behind!
The good news for salad crops, including cucumbers, is that they are in the Top 10 of vegetables regularly purchased by food shoppers in the UK and USA. Worrisomely, in both countries, the higher purchasing households tend be those who are older, richer, and without children. I don’t think, as you tip over 50 years old, that you wake up one morning and think “I fancy a cucumber”. Rather, we need to introduce (aka train) our children to eat such items sooner rather than later in their lives. Also, learn from other countries, how to use salad crops as breakfast and snack items – they’re on breakfast buffet tables in many British hotels, so put them out at home, with a healthy & tasty dip would be helpful.
The health attributes of fresh produce are an issue and the issue is that the produce industry keeps the manifold nutritional advantages of fruit and vegetables a secret. Cucumbers are a case in point. This is not highfalutin research, but in preparing for my talk I asked dozens of people I met en passant do you eat cukes, why and what was in them? Usually, the response was: “yes, they’re refreshing and full of water”. Nutrients, special benefits? Silence! Click on Tesco.com and put in “Cucumbers”. Up comes 3 fresh cucumber skus and half a dozen cucumber beauty products (e.g. brand named “Yes to Cucumbers” skin toners and eye treatments).
Mark our words, if a consumer goods product has ANY health/beauty features, it’ll shriek it from the rooftops. Why wouldn’t we tell consumers, in particular those younger ones who under-purchase cucumbers, that, apart from being refreshing and a guilt-free stick for dipping, they’re: chock-a-block full of vitamins C and K, magnesium, manganese, and potassium; help as a satiating afternoon snack for those wishing to manage their weight; and are embraced by the beauty industry in a host of skin toning and eye health products?
If you tell customers that your product is tasty, healthy, good for the skin and eyes, and convenient will they buy more? Yes! Will they pay more? No – not if there is a seemingly endless supply of identical product available every time they go shopping. That’s a huge problem for cucumbers and many fresh produce items. The dreaded commodity trap awaits which is so well exemplified by the case of bananas in the UK. Bananas retail at 78p (<$1) per kg. across the UK high street – the Cavendish variety is pervasive. Bananas are our favourite fruit and account for one-quarter of all fruit consumed in the UK. Why? They’re tasty, convenient, children like them and they’re virtually a free good! The retail price of bananas has declined by 15% over the past 15 years. Did production costs decline?! NO and the story sounds familiar to that for cucumbers and many other produce items.
How can you exit the commodity trap? With difficulty! Grow something that is identifiably different with attributes consumers value and are willing to pay more for. For a grower, this could involve aligning with a seed supplier and produce marketer that has access to exactly that. Fruit and vegetable product examples include: Tenderstem broccoli in Europe and its Aussie equivalent Broccolini. In fruit, take a look at the price premium earned and marketing programme of the Pink Lady apple. Grower-owned Zespri from New Zealand has done a remarkable job earning a small premium on the commoditised green kiwifruit and a substantial premium on the SunGold version gaining great traction in markets, particularly in Asia, for its immune health benefits.
For UK fresh produce growers, here and now, what can be done to make a very difficult position a little better? Collaborate as a domestic industry and start to communicate with home consumers on provenance (home grown to high standards), your importance to the local community, freshness, health benefits, and tell them how to use it on “new” occasions – breakfast, snacking, etc. for cucumbers. Where’s the budget coming from? Canny use of social media can produce brilliant results with minimal spend – have a peek at how Little Moons mochi ice cream balls made a huge impact on TikTok. Cucumbers aren’t ice cream but you’ve got more to work with than, say, iceberg lettuce or swede! There’s clearly a role for the Cucumber Growers’ Association here. The Veg Power Campaign staff focussing on promoting overall veg consumption would be useful allies in crafting a social media campaign specifically for cucumbers.
In the UK, households spend less than £10 per week on fruit and vegetable bought from grocery stores that’s way less than many commuters spend on buying a coffee per day! It’s scandalous and we in the fresh produce industry need a good kick up the bum for being so coy about the manifold consumer benefits of our produce. Our produce isn’t caffeine-rich but, for cucumbers, it’s rich in nutrients that extend life and improve our looks. What isn’t there to shout about!