Belfast Telegraph

Crop shortage to hit Co Down pre-pack salad firm by £1m turnover

Low supplies caused by weather crisis is the worst director has seen in 50 years of trading

By Rachel Martin

Northern Ireland pre-pack salad company Willowbrook Foods has said it could lose up to £1m turnover as lettuce supplies are hit by extreme weather in Spain.

John McCann, founder and managing director of Willowbrook Foods, spent a week braving floodwaters in Murcia, Spain to inspect the damage to his firm's raw material supplies.

The Willowbrook boss said that as a result, he could not fulfil orders of ready-to-use lettuce to the retail and food service industries. The crisis is set to hit the company's sales, which last year reached £22m.

Floods in southern Spain have hit the country's crops, leaving around 80% of the salad crops produced in Murcia unusable. And the worst snow in decades has hit the company's other suppliers in Italy.

"Last week we had up to 70% shortages - a disaster for our customers who could not understand why," he said. "Modern supply to customers is around 99.8% and this level has dropped down to 30% and was unacceptable and unheard of.

"Looking to the future, assuming the weather does improve as the spring arrives, the problems have not gone away.

"A certain fact is that with three to four weeks of no planting at the end of December and January, there will be no crops maturing in March.

"This will see a possible total stoppage. Maybe warm weather and growth compensate a little, but the growers and lettuce users are facing a period of no crops.

"This has never happened before."

Murcia in south east Spain produces around 80% of the salad mixes eaten in northern Europe and supplies vegetables to firms including Willowbrook Foods, which is based in Killinchy.

The firm has warned customers and is sending daily updates on the situation. Mr McCann said he travelled to Spain to investigate the severity of the problem for himself.

But the worst could be yet to come as growers have been unable to plant for almost four weeks. That will leave Willowbrook Foods and other customers with a lack of supply as there will be nothing to harvest.

Willowbrook Farm Foods said the situation is a "disaster" and likely to continue for at least six to eight weeks.

Willowbrook is one of the UK's largest bagged salad processors.

Heavy rain started to flood the south east of Spain in mid-December and has continued to get worse.

Mr McCann described the carnage wreaked on agricultural land in the area. "Floods washed away planted crops, fields became lakes and mud washed over the level fields which did have crops. Fields due to be planted became rivers of mud and planting had to stop."

He said lettuces were almost half their normal size, a deficiency likely to cost the firm £150,000. Extra labour required to wash mud carried by flood water off the vegetables is expected to cost a further £116,000 in the first quarter of the year.

Willowbrook Farm Foods employs 250 people at its processing plant in Killinchy. Mr McCann started importing fresh leaf vegetables from Spain and Italy 20 years ago when he started making the mixed salad bags.

He said it was the "worst disruption" in the company's service he had ever seen since he started trading in 1968.

"The hardest part is telling people and hoping that your reputation won't be destroyed by this," he said. "It's hard in this day and age where things come back in stock within a few days - people don't understand what you mean when you say the crop just isn't there.

Mr McCann added that supplies from the USA or further afield could not plug the gap as crop production could not be sped up. And where available, emergency supplies could cost up to five times the normal price.

He added that it was not viable for farmers to grow lettuce in greenhouses here during winter.

Belfast Telegraph

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