In the UK, beets are rotting due to lack of European buyers

A portion of 500 tons of rotten beets due to lack of European buyers after Brexit, at Woodhall Growers farm in Penkridge (center) in the United Kingdom, on April 14, 2022 (Darren Staples / AFP)

In the heart of the English countryside, Will Woodhull somehow tries to stay positive, even if several tons of organic beets, worth more than €100,000, have rotted on his farm, due to the lack of European buyers.

“It really is a shame, all the effort is for this,” the 35-year-old laments, pointing to a 4.5-meter-high pile of rotting vegetables since October.

“I’ve never had an unsold harvest of this magnitude,” he told AFP. “It’s obviously affecting our business. Let’s hope we can absorb that, I’m trying to stay positive.”

Woodhull’s beet is the latest casualty of Brexit, as the bureaucracy associated with Brexit has made it difficult to export British products to the continent.

On his 770-hectare farm, Woodhall Growers, Will Woodhall has been producing organic beets for nearly a decade and exports nearly half of his produce to Europe.

He initially believed that Brexit, which took effect in early 2020, would have little impact on his business. But after an 11-month transition period, the UK left the European Customs Union and the Common Market, leaving traders of all kinds in limbo.

‘Too much trouble’

Quickly, a European buyer broke his contract on purchasing hundreds of tons of beets and has not placed an order since. “They said they no longer wanted non-European produce,” explains the English farmer.

Farmer Will Woodhall walks past a mountain of rotting organic beetroot due to a shortage of European buyers, at his Woodhall Growers farm in Penkridge (center) in the UK, April 14, 2022
Farmer Will Woodhull in front of a mountain of organic beets rotting due to a lack of European buyers, at his Woodhall Growers farm in Penkridge (center) in the United Kingdom, on April 14, 2022 (Darren Staples / AFP)

Usually buyers of beets mix with others from other European countries, but with Brexit they now have to separate the beets from each other, which takes time and costs money.

“It’s a lot of trouble. I can’t blame them,” admits Will Woodhull.

The producer, who usually ships his produce in the winter after harvesting at the end of autumn, ended up with a few hundred tons of unsold beets, valued at around £90,000 (€109, 000). “We’ve taken a big hit,” he sums up.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other Brexit supporters have promised that leaving the EU after half a century of European integration would free the UK from bureaucratic constraints and open up new markets for the country.

But for many companies, which like Will Woodhull Farm depend at least in part on trade through channels, Brexit has made exporting more complicated.

“heartbroken”

“From now on we will only produce for the UK. No more exports to the EU of our organic beets, which is a real shame,” Mr. Woodhull laments.

To compensate, he plans to grow more green onions, grains and peas, in order to diversify his production for the local market.

“You just have to go ahead,” the farmer said, realizing that British buyers could only partially compensate his European customers. He even plans to embark on “luxury” luxury camping.

“You can’t do better with 19 hectares than 34 hectares,” he explains. “It’s good to produce more to really be able to reduce” production costs.

Despite everything, the farmer, who voted to remain in the EU in 2016, remains optimistic about the longer-term prospects associated with Brexit, if promises are indeed fulfilled.

“I honestly think that in ten years we’ll be better outside (the European Union), with Brexit, and having our own market. But how many will go bankrupt by then?” “Do we have the necessary support? I don’t know.”

While agriculture is largely subsidized in Europe, British government support is “weak” due to the small size of the sector.

A portion of 500 tons of rotten beets due to a shortage of European buyers after Brexit, at the Woodhall Growers farm in Penkridge (center) in the United Kingdom, April 14, 2022
A portion of 500 tons of rotten beets due to lack of European buyers after Brexit, at Woodhall Growers farm in Penkridge (center) in the United Kingdom, on April 14, 2022 (Darren Staples / AFP)

Mr Woodhall says farming is “not worth much, I think, but it’s a way of life for people like me, for thousands of people”.

In the meantime, he has no choice but to let the beets rot.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he says. “I come every day and look at the pile, and sometimes I take my head in my hands.” I really need to think of something else.”

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