In the United Kingdom, beets rot for lack of European buyers

In the heart of the English countryside, Will Woodhall tries somehow to stay positive, even if several tons of his organic beets, worth more than 100,000 euros, rot on his farm, for lack of European buyers.

“It’s really a shame, all this effort for this,” laments the 35-year-old farmer, pointing to a 4.5-meter-high mound of vegetables that have been rotting since October.

“I’ve never had an unsold harvest of this magnitude. Obviously, this weighs on our business. Hopefully we can digest that, I try to stay positive,” he told AFP.

Mr Woodhall’s beets are the latest casualties of Brexit as bureaucracy linked to Britain’s exit from the European Union has made it difficult to export British produce to the Continent.

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

He first thought that Brexit, effective 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 common market, leaving traders of all kinds in limbo.

– “A lot of hassle” –

Quickly, one of its European buyers broke its contract concerning the purchase of hundreds of tons of beets and has not placed an order since. “They said they no longer wanted non-European products,” explains the English farmer.

Usually his buyers mixed his beets with others from other European countries, but with Brexit they now have to separate them to tell them apart, which takes time and costs money.

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

The producer, who usually ships his products in winter after the harvest at the end of autumn, ended up with a few hundred tonnes of unsold beets, worth around 90,000 pounds (109,000 euros). “We took a big hit,” he sums up.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other Brexit supporters had 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 Woodhall’s farm rely at least in part on cross-Channel trade, Brexit has instead made exporting much more complicated.

– “Heartbreaking” –

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

To compensate, he plans to grow more spring onions, cereals and peas, in order to diversify his production for the domestic market.

“You just have to move on,” says the farmer, aware that British buyers can only partially compensate his European customers. He even plans to embark on “glamping”, luxury camping.

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

Despite everything, the farmer, who voted to stay in the EU in 2016, remains optimistic about the long-term possibilities linked to Brexit, if the promises are indeed kept.

“I sincerely think that in ten years we will be better outside (the EU), with Brexit, having our own market. But how many will go bankrupt by then? “, he worries. “And do we have the necessary support? I do not know “.

While agriculture is heavily subsidized in Europe, UK government support “falls short” due to the small size of the sector.

Farming “isn’t worth as much, I guess, but it’s a way of life for people like me, for thousands of people,” says Woodhall.

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

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

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