The 'Hungry Gap', written by Emma in March '21.
I had a chat with George (while he weeded the garlic) about the most talked about time of year for UK growers….the Hungry Gap.
There’s a reason that pickles, preserves and potatoes are seen as intrinsically English produce. Back in the ‘old days’, this was what kept the cupboards full and our ancestors from going hungry during the long, cold Northern European winter. In fact, it’s not winter that’s so much the problem - it’s the period from February to early June when there’s not a lot of leafy stuff available and the root veg have all been eaten. That time of the year is known as the Hungry Gap.
Most of us crave Spring sunshine which brings with it longer days, new life and greener fields. But for UK growers, there is still a significant lag between this warmer weather and when the crops in the fields can be harvested. There’s lots going on above and below the ground but it’s just not ready to be picked yet! In Spain of course, they don’t have the same problem - lettuce, tomatoes, chard will all happily grow year round but they have a climate that we simply don’t, and that’s never going to change.
For George and other growers, trying to mitigate the effects of the Hungry Gap is a challenge. To provide enough veg for the boxes he explained to me that he has, in short, three options: 1 - import from other European countries such as Spain or Italy. 2 - heat the greenhouses. 3 - persuade people to eat more cabbage. Now, while we like cabbage as much as the next person, it’s unrealistic to expect us all to replicate the diets of our grandparents when there are other options available. Heating greenhouses is not environmentally sustainable. So George has to import a selection of veg throughout this period. It’s not ideal and he places his orders with care - always buying UK produce where he can, avoiding air freight and in general, constantly trying to keep the carbon footprint as low as possible. It’s currently the only option.
This year, the Hungry Gap seemed to come even earlier than usual. The two pronged attack of Brexit and Covid, meant importing veg became very tricky at a time when increased demand for home-grown produce had depleted usual winter stores. Supermarkets had also started looking for new UK supply channels to fill the gaps on their shelves which then left little for the smaller businesses. It put a huge pressure on UK winter cabbage and kale which has been picked smaller and sooner than ever before. At one point it was extremely hard to buy anything leafy anywhere, which caused George some serious headaches. On top of all this, severe snowstorms in Spain in early January left lorries stranded and food arriving into our ports rotten and useless. The situation has levelled out now and regained some calm but it’s left the winter veg stores in the UK looking rather bare, at a time when we all really need a stash of swedes and seasonal greens.
However, out of adversity often rises opportunity and UK growers and in particular the Organic market, have seen a serious step change. The Soil Association’s 2021 ‘Organic Market Report’ shows a 12.5% increase in demand for Organic produce which is the highest year on year growth in 15 years. Obviously this is welcome news but here’s the challenge - now consumers are buying more homegrown Organic produce, how do we extend the growing season in our cold climate and bridge the yawning Hungry Gap?!
George is employing a number of techniques this year to inch the growing season forward by a few weeks. The new polytunnel has a large part to play, enabling the team to get things going early this year, while still concentrating on winter salads and spinach in the other parts of the market garden. The new tunnel is currently full of spring garlic and lamb’s lettuce for some welcome, fresh greenery by mid April. The first round of courgettes will be inside to get them ready for the June market and as soon as the lettuce has grown a little more in the greenhouse, it will planted outside under cloches to keep off any last minute frosty surprises. The raised beds George recently constructed heat up faster than if they were directly on the ground and retain the sun’s warmth more effectively, slightly speeding up the growing process. The new no-dig beds are also currently covered, warming the soil which will give the plants a head start when they go in.
There are also bigger ideas that George is keen to investigate - the passive heating of polytunnels being one of them. At the moment it’s arguably better, from an environmental perspective, to buy tomatoes from sunny Southern Spain, even with the impact of the shipping, than it is to source them from the UK where huge amounts of energy are used heating greenhouses. George would love to find a way of growing some of these mediterranean crops without artificial heating. Previously little time and effort has been spent looking into passive heating methods but now? If we’re going to be relying less on foreign produce, then investment in making that winter/spring transition as seamless as possible is absolutely worth it.
Of course, bringing forward the June crops is only one half of the problem - the other is creating more abundance in the winter. George’s solution has been to put in no fewer than 18 no-dig beds in the market garden which will leave space in the fields for more rooty veg, leeks and kale. This reorientation of the market garden should mean he is able to grow more field scale produce and avoid the problem of over-picking, or simply running out too fast. Considering this year’s winter crops were all ordered before anyone had even heard of Covid 19, George has done remarkably well to preserve what he has but with demand for local produce high and supply chains tricky, next year the quantities need to be greater.
Trying to eradicate the Hungry Gap is impossible. It’s like facing the same pole of two magnets towards each other - they will never meet. But it IS possible to try and force each end closer together. Being more self reliant is now a necessity for growers like George and while February to June may never be a time of plenty in the UK, he feels there’s now a real opportunity to think creatively, become more resilient…..and squeeze that Hungry Gap.