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Food and Drink

Stuart Piccaver

Stuart Piccaver is chief executive of JEPCO, a Holbeach based business specialising in the production of high-quality salad crops for the manufacturing and direct-to-retail sectors. A sixth-generation farm, Stuart’s grandfather established the JEPCO business and as the current steward, Stuart has grown the offering to include cutting edge and highly specialised hydroponically grown lettuces with multiple sites across the east of England, and more in the pipeline. In 2022, the business also moved into providing sales and marketing solutions for the grocery industry.

One business success

  • As a family-owned business, we’ve always had to diversify and adapt to an industry that’s changed a huge amount over the last 50 years, and I consider this our key strength. Each generation has added a new layer of expertise to JEPCO, with my grandfather extending the acreage, my father expanding the business with salad crops and most recently, we’ve evolved with 21st century technology and established our innovative hydroponics programme – one of our greatest achievements yet. We grow lettuces in huge deep-water ponds in greenhouses, designed to let in as much light as possible and use recycled rainwater. The ponds and structures create a stable environment for the lettuces to grow. They are covered and not subject to the elements, insects or herbicides – we have more control than ever before. For the food manufacturing sector, we produce an extremely clean lettuce that’s available 52 weeks of the year and can be used in food-to-go products with vastly reduced risk of contamination either physical or microbial. For some applications the lettuces can be sold as whole heads with their root systems intact, giving them a range of benefits. I started investigating hydroponic technology in 2006. Initially I recognised that there were a number of niche requirements. However, as the technology has advanced the need for innovative solutions for crop production has also increased. Consequently there is now an opportunity to firmly establish the production in the UK and take it mainstream. The next development has the added benefit of diversifying JEPCO’s offering in the process. Whilst it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a long-term vision that’s becoming a reality and JEPCO now has three sites currently growing hydroponically across the East of England, with South Holland District Council recently granting planning permission for our biggest facility yet at our main site in South Lincolnshire.

Two sector challenges

  • It may be obvious, but climate change presents a very real challenge to our business and the wider industry. One arm of JEPCO grows salad crops in the open fields of Lincolnshire and Suffolk; which includes lettuces, salad onions, radicchio, spinach and a small number of greens; and we are feeling the effects of climate change more than ever before. With extremely hot conditions in July and August, mixed with some heavy periods of rainfall, it’s made our work challenging. On 19th July, the temperature on site reached 39 degrees Celsius, breaking the existing record by 10%. We also received a deluge of rain on 17th August, falling on very dry ground with 190mm of water in five hours – equating to a third of our annual rainfall, so inevitably we had some flooding and damage to crops. With some luck and quick reactions, farmers may produce crops of a suitable quality, but the industry is at the mercy of more intense periods of weather, which can make yields inconsistent, affect quality and in some instances, wash or burn them away completely. As a result, food will be harder to produce and consumers will find it increasingly difficult to buy their favourites in supermarkets and shops, as crops become damaged or even phased out by farmers, who would rather grow hardier varieties that adapt with the changes in climate. For example, Lincolnshire has seen potato and pea crops moving to Scotland over recent years due to weather conditions changing, in a county which has been known for producing these crops for centuries.
  • A challenge for the hydroponics sector specifically, is the lack of knowledge on the growing method, and it doesn’t help that there are no case studies that showcase the process on a large, industrial scale - essentially, the wider industry is playing catch up. All producers fiercely protect their IP. This means it can be challenging to garner the investment both financially and academically when establishing a unit. In order to get backing in the UK, these units are usually part of wider projects and developments led by governments and councils, which is the start of something great but can create lots of moving parts and slower timelines. However, on the continent the Netherlands is leading the way in hydroponic technology and glasshouses, with a very joined up and pragmatic approach, bringing the relevant experts together seamlessly to create streamlined system – something the UK should aspire to achieve.

Three sector forecasts

  • The farming industry is often in the spotlight when it comes to automation and whether machinery will “replace” people. Whilst on the surface it may look like new state-of-the-art machinery removes the need for workers - diversifying economies, ageing workforces and migration patterns of people are reducing the labour numbers in the industry. As the trend continues in the future, the labour will not be available in the levels needed to do the job in the same way, putting businesses and supply at risk. Automation future-proofs a business and the food security of the UK, as the desires and needs of a workforce change over time. There’s already a huge amount of highly efficient machinery out there and with new engineers and innovators collaborating, the levels of automation will only increase in sophistication, helping to somewhat address the issue of insufficient labour numbers in the industry.
  • With the pressures of climate change impacting the security of food, the industry will be forced to adopt more forward-thinking growing techniques to protect the future of food in Britain, including hydroponics which has been used across the continent for years. With crops grown in huge pools of recycled water in glasshouse structures that absorb natural light in all seasons, the production method demonstrates the future of fresh produce buying, where salad crops that typically have limited availability become accessible all year round, improving the UK's food security in a sustainable way. Hydroponic technology also has an ability to present crops to the consumer differently, creating additional benefits. For example JEPCO’s Living Lettuce is purchased as a whole head with its root system left intact giving consumer’s better flavour, a longer shelf life and helping to minimise food waste.
  • The rising cost of energy and the move to net zero means the industry is already thinking about how to adapt. One solution is glasshouses with sustainable power sources, like the units we use at our hydroponics facilities. Also with natural sunlight readily available for six to eight months of the year to assist in growing, it makes sense to use it. Whilst vertical farms, usually enclosed rooms that grow produce on a series of shelves or levels, have their place in urban areas and eliminate weather variables, they still require a large amount of energy even when using renewables, because there’s no natural light. With the uncertainty around all energy sources and lack of meaningful solutions to move towards renewable energy, the crisis will play a huge part in how the agriculture industry is shaped in the future.

November 2022