The UK watercress season got underway this week without the usual fanfare of the Alresford Watercress Festival to herald its start having become another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, and the more serious concerns over a lack of labour, The Watercress Company has kicked off the season as planned, and so far, prospects are looking good.
Split between Hampshire and Dorset, The Watercress Company owns over 50 acres of watercress beds. The crop is cut every 4-12 weeks and its unique and productive nature which uses spring water nutrition enables harvesting of up to 6 crops a year. The Watercress Company anticipates harvesting over 600 tonnes of the super green between now and late October supplying over 4,000 stores around the country while also supporting its new online business selling traditional bunches of watercress in cones made from sustainable paper packaging. Like many growers, The Watercress Company has had to overcome the lack of seasonal labour. Longstanding seasonal employees from overseas, many of whom have worked with The Watercress Company for 10 years or more, have been unable to come due to movement restrictions caused by COVID-19. As a result, the ‘class of 2020’ who have stepped into the breach have a range of backgrounds from sport instructor, designer, event electrician, student, landscape gardener, mechanic, builder, podiatrist to sailor!
Tom Amery, MD of The Watercress Company explains: “We realised quite early on in the lockdown that we were going to have issues with the harvest of watercress and our other salad crops if we didn’t quickly source the 25 staff members needed from other backgrounds. We were lucky, as, in both Hampshire and Dorset, local people who had been furloughed or who were self-employed applied to work and underwent a rigorous period of training in the build-up to harvest starting. We had 10% drop out in the first couple of weeks, but after that, everyone else settled in and now appear to be loving it. For most, it’s a complete change from their normal lives, while we haven’t had to train a fresh group of recruits for years, but I think we are learning a lot from each other.”
James Brice, from Sydling St Nicholas, Dorset, is one of the new recruits assisting with the harvest and irrigation of the land salad crops also grown by The Watercress Company. He said: “Three months ago I would never have dreamed I would be standing in a watercress bed wearing PPE helping to bring in the harvest! It’s certainly very different to my normal role as a fitness instructor and it’s opened my eyes as to how our food is grown and gets onto the supermarket shelves. I originally saw it as a temporary role, offering to help because I recognised how important it is to harvest our crops, but I have actually found the work complements my own fitness business. It’s physically demanding so keeps you in good shape, and I can fit the hours around the zoom sessions I have been doing with clients. I’d definitely consider doing it next year to supplement my income.”
Sales in 2020 started slowly but The Watercress Company has put this down to several factors mainly connected to changing shopping habits over the last nine weeks due, of course, to Coronavirus.
- People have been choosing to buy more tinned, frozen and brown goods that can be kept for longer without going off as they are shopping less often and tight on space in home fridges
- Many people are buying for others who will tend to only ask for essentials so as not to be a burden with normal long lists
- Loyal watercress buyers, tend to be older and so many of these regular buyers have not been going out, falling into the category requiring help with shopping
- Shopping has not been a pleasant experience, and we have been asked not to go as often as usual. Salads tend to be something you would buy on each occasion and therefore fewer occasions means less salad bought
In the last two weeks, however, there have been signs of a sales uplift, aided in part by the sunny weather but also by an offer at Tesco reducing their 85g bag from £1.30 to 97p. This has been well promoted online including via The Watercress Company’s virtual campaign to salvage the hugely popular World Watercress Eating Championships from the cancelled Watercress Festival and which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/LoveWatercress/
In Tom’s words: “We are a little below sales compared to last year, but making ground daily. It’s definitely the weirdest UK season and sales environment I’ve ever experienced but maintaining the supply of Fruit & Veg is vital to the nation’s health. Watercress has navigated choppy waters in the past with full uninterrupted supply for the last 120 years, even during the two World Wars. We are determined to maintain that record and so far, so good!”