“The only way around it is if I reduce my gas use to the minimum possible, but by doing that I’m only going to cause more problems with the plants and my production is going to be a lot lower,” says Montalbano, whose specialist “snacking” cucumbers (baby cucumbers more akin to the size of a pickle) are popular in Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.
“I could have decided not to plant at all, but I don’t want to lose my place in the supermarkets.”
It isn’t only cucumbers that are at risk. In other parts of the country, growers haven’t been able to plant aubergines, tomatoes and peppers after a surge in gas prices in 2021 was exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine and made the job of British farmers 10 times harder. “At the start of last year it was around 40p a therm (a unit of energy) – now, today’s price is around £3 per therm,” says Shepherdson.
“It’s perfect storm territory. Last year we had the issue with labour shortages and the energy prices going up. This year, everything’s a mess.
“Fertilisers are through the roof and gas is too. When you don’t have gas you can’t produce CO2, a byproduct we use to speed crops up.”
It’s prompted many to wonder whether Britain could be in for wartime-style rationing. In Spain, days after supermarkets ran out of oil and milk, the government has now temporarily authorised shops to limit the sale of some products so items don’t entirely sell out when the markets are under stress. The supermarkets had been calling for legal backing to bring in rationing to mitigate the impact of the war in Ukraine.
So could a “dig for victory” spirit be about to return here too? Could we find ourselves having to forage, or fight our way to the top of an allotment waiting list?
Chef Dan Cox, who owns Crocadon Farm in Cornwall, says growing in a way that doesn’t rely on fuel is the way forward. “We’re now at a point where you’ve kind of got no choice because the energy needed to produce them far outweighs the profit made at the end of the day,” says Cox, who is led by what he can grow at different times of year with minimal intervention. Consumers, he says, are eventually “going to be forced to eat seasonally”.
“People want cucumbers all year round,” he says, but “you have to work out what the true season is. We’re not going to start our cucumber seeds until the end of April. The first [cucumbers] will be ready early June.”
At Crocadon, Cox’s Dragon Suhyo variety of cucumber is a big hit. “We don’t water them. We almost dry farm them. It’s so hot in these tunnels in spring and summer, there’s never any need for electricity or heat.”
There are 300,000 edible plants in the world, and we only eat about 200 of them. Experts say we should turn to foragable alternatives like nettles, dandelion and wild garlic, but in reality says Pete Thompson, a third generation farmer in Essex, “peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers are always going to be a stretch.”
Thompson has been charged by various food companies with coming up with innovative ways of growing Mediterranean crops that don’t typically flourish here, like citrus and olives. “We’re getting close to being able to say we think we can commercially produce lemons in the UK,” he says. “Unheated, we’re not reliant on any fuel of any sort, we just have to give them a bit of protection during the winter. We’re four years away from getting them into retail.”
Finding a way to sustain British farmers has to be the answer, says Tim Lang, professor emeritus of food policy at City University. “Are we going to get cucumbers from Honduras? Is that what George Eustice wants in a time of trying to cut carbon? It’s bonkers.”