Strawberries, potatoes, and root vegetables are set to feel the impact of a rise in fuel and fertiliser costs in the next few months, Northern Ireland fruit and vegetable retailers have said.
price spike is inevitable, they said, as war in Ukraine plays havoc not just with fuel costs but with the price of commodities including fertiliser.
It’s an unsustainable jump that cannot be absorbed by growers, and one that will eventually have to be passed on to shoppers.
On the Ormeau Road in Belfast, Michael Goggin of Michel’s fruit and vegetable store has seen the rise in fuel costs impact his ability to buy strawberries from Holland, which are considered a more premium variety.
He said: “We were getting nice strawberries from Belgium and Holland earlier in the year but around two weeks ago they disappeared. We were told the price of these at auctions almost doubled and that tied in with the beginning of the war and as energy prices began to rise.
“These miles of greenhouses in Holland and Belgium rely on heat this time of year and that’s forced the price of producing strawberries there up.
“It means the wholesalers won’t bring them in because they’re too expensive and hard to sell at that price.”
Mr Goggin said a regular box of Dutch strawberries that would have cost up to around £32 had increased to £60.
“The alternative then is Spanish strawberries, which are pretty good, but people prefer the Dutch variety, and I would prefer to have the choice to sell both.
“What we will find now is, if there is more demand on Spanish strawberries, they will start to rise in price too.”
Some reports reveal the UK price of ammonium nitrate (fertiliser) has climbed as high as £1,000 per tonne, double what it was a week ago.
And the Ulster Farmers Union says some farmers are paying four times as much for artificial fertiliser.
David Jackson, of Jackson Greens fruit and vegetable store in Belfast’s Bridge Street, said price surges could well take six to nine months to show.
He said: “There is an increase in prices right now, but everything is increasing. We’ve not seen the big rise just yet but it’s coming.
“We’re about six months behind. The biggest issue we’re seeing is the rise in the cost of fertiliser. It has risen so much that there is talk of rationing it because of the money involved in purchasing it now.”
Mr Jackson expects vegetables that are heavily reliant on fertiliser to be among the worst hit produce in store, including potatoes.
Mr Goggins anticipates price rises in potatoes, carrots, cabbages, parsnips, leeks and soup vegetables too, with price tags jumping by 20% because of a surge in fertiliser prices.
One Northern Ireland wholesaler warned: “The days of cheap, cheap produce are gone. If you take fertilisers, growers are looking at putting crops in now for this upcoming season and fertiliser is costing them from two and a half times the usual price so for them to get the yield they normally get, they must spend more on fertilisers and that money must come from somewhere.
Add that to labor and fuel costs and there will be price rises.
“One of our growers said his price for fertiliser was four times the usual cost. If you take the likes of red diesel too, it used to be 50p per litre, farmers are now paying £1.20.
“Storage costs and packaging are all costing more, there are sizeable increases.
“I know for us, the price of cardboard has risen by 70%.”
Ulster Farmers Union president, Victor Chestnutt, said the fertiliser issue will hit all elements of farming, from livestock to crops.
He urged retailers and the public to accept that price hikes are inevitable to ensure the sustainability of farming during “these unprecedented times”.
He said: “Most of the raw material that makes fertiliser comes from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia and that source has now gone.
“This is not a Northern Ireland problem; this is worldwide and it’s pushing fertiliser to become uneconomical to use.
“Some plants in Europe have even closed because they think farmers couldn’t afford to purchase the fertilisers so what we need to do now is increase farm gate prices but not a crazy amount.
“We are almost in war times and that’s not too strong to say so right now the most important thing to focus on is availability.
“We need to value food more; we need to tackle food waste and we all have a part to play in that. We also need to expect the farmer to need extra because every part of the process in the food chain has increased in cost.”
Mr Chestnutt, who has been farming for over 40 years, said costs to farmers have never been as high in his lifetime.
“Today the average household spend on food is the lowest it’s ever been. In the 1950s 50% of household income went on food. Today it’s 8 to 9%.
“Some people spend much more of their income on food that that figure may sound degrading but when you compare it with the past, it is relative. Because of the times we are living in now, I see household spend on food rising to 14% .”
Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Minister Edwin Poots said we need to prepare for price rises. “Given the crucial roles that both Russia and Ukraine play in global agri-food markets, I have grave concerns the longer the conflict continues, the more likely we are to see a real and damaging impact on our local industries. There is no doubt raising input costs such as energy, grain and fertiliser will lead to increase in food prices and we need to prepare for that.”