This week, we heard that Woodside Farms, which grows, packages and supplies 80% of the veg sold in the island could decide this month to close down after 135 years in agriculture.
The business says it has been crippled by covid and Brexit, and questions why it was not eligible to receive any Government funding over the pandemic, when other industries were eligible.
Its potential closure also raises wider issues of the viability of agriculture in general and also the issue of food security. If Woodside does close, does it leave the island vulnerable?
The business is based not far from Haute Croix in Trinity and has been the Gallichan family farm since 1887. Now run by Charlie, the fifth generation of Gallichan to take the helm, Woodside grows a wide variety of produce including Jersey Royals and daffodils for export, and vegetables for the local market, including maincrop potatoes, onions, carrots, greens, chillies, leeks and broccoli.
The local market is split between retail and hospitality. This expanded significantly in 2015 when Woodside bought Amal Grow. The latter company had been bought by potato grower Albert Bartlett in 2013 but it decided to close that arm of the business after two years of unprofitable trading.
To maintain local veg production, the Government gave Woodside £485,000 to help with the smooth transition, including the transfer of Amal Grow’s 50 staff. The stated reason for the support was “to maintain local production of a range of seasonal vegetables that are grown and eaten in Jersey."
Pictured: Woodside Farms is based in Rue Coutanche in Trinity.
Woodside invested a further £4m in local production. As well as grow, wash, bag and deliver veg to its two principal retail customers, the Co-op and Waitrose, the farm also prepares veg for the hospitality sector, such as peeling and slicing potatoes to make chips.
It also has a significant daffodil business, which are grown, picked, chilled and exported at this time of year to key markets, including the United States and France.
The farm also grows Jersey Royals for export under licence for the Jersey Royal Company.
The company is buying the daffodil and potato export businesses from Woodside, subject to regulatory approval.
Woodside also launched a logistics business in 2015 with bases in Jersey, Guernsey and the UK. It was recently sold to Jersey Post for an undisclosed sum.
The Gallichan family also run a separate business, a popular farm shop, in Rue Coutanche in Trinity.
Mr Gallichan recently gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, a Scrutiny panel which is reviewing the government's covid financial support. Although news of his business’s potential closure had not broken then, the warning signs were clear.
“We suffered more than other businesses because of the nature of our business. I would like to know why Government was unable to support agriculture at all financially,” he said.
“Personally, I don’t understand why support was issued by sector; surely any business which suffered a downturn in business because the pandemic should have been eligible.”
He added that, in terms of finding staff, Brexit and Covid had created a “perfect storm” in 2020.
Pictured: Mr Gallichan had to dump £100,000-worth of daffodils in the first week of lockdown.
Mr Gallichan also detailed the problems of that year, including having to dump £100,000 of daffodils in the first week of the lockdown, and having to throw away potatoes and other produce when hospitality closed, and the export market disappeared overnight.
He added: “A significant product line we grow for hospitality is chips, so processing potatoes, but the world had a complete meltdown on these.
“In late February 2020, they were worth £350 a tonne, but in March, after lockdown, you were lucky if you could get a bid on them. We normally export surplus potatoes, but we couldn’t do anything with them, so we dumped hundreds and hundreds of tonnes.”
He also listed other problems, such as the Government not being prepared to give support Woodside Logistics because it was owned by the farm so was considered ineligible.
He said he could not understand why agriculture had not been eligible for financial aid like other industries, including food wholesalers, florists and other transport companies.
“We applied five or six times but gave up after that. We applied with the support of the Environment Department and Jersey Business, but no one could give me a clear answer as to why we wouldn’t get any help.
“Ultimately, the response we got is ‘agriculture is an exempt business, therefore you’re not eligible for aid’.
St. John Constable Andy Jehan is a member of the Public Accounts Committee, who heard Mr Gallichan’s concerns.
“I was both surprised and disappointed to hear of the struggles of agriculture during the pandemic,” he said. “To hear that a local hotel couldn’t be used for agriculture staff arriving on the Island, while construction workers had been allowed to arrive from a red country area was disappointing.
“This added both cost and complexity during an already difficult time. The differences between different organisations in the sector was explained. Despite the differences, none received financial help - this despite having significant additional costs and reductions in sales caused in part by due to the closure of hospitality businesses.”
The Government has been approached for a reaction to the potential closure of Woodside Farms and Mr Gallichan's criticisms of the lack of financial support during the pandemic.
The Co-op is a key customer of Woodside Farm and sells a wide range of locally grown veg. CEO Mark Cox said he was “very disappointed” to hear the news but could understand his position.
“Charlie is our largest local supplier and have worked closely with him for a number of years. During covid, for example, we moved to weekly payment terms and we have also engaged with Woodside to support different crops, such as celery.
“From a scale point of view, we recognise that additional support is required and the Government needs to act, otherwise you will have fields not used at all, which would be a crying shame.
Pictured: Mr Cox said that it was crucial that the island's fields were viable and farmed.
“Local production, by its very nature, is influenced by economies of scale and products tend to be slightly more expensive than an equivalent imported version. We have always supported local by not only stocking it but also heavily marketing it and making sure it is separate from imported goods on the shelves.
“We understand that people look for value and may prefer to buy cheaper imports. That is a short-term benefit to the consumer but if you lose jobs and fields are not put to good use, then the longer-term impact for the island is serious.
“We need to diversify our economy and agriculture is a key part of that.”
He added: “When it comes to food security, we can always bring in produce from the UK, but from the point of the view of sustainability and food miles, if you have lots of fields growing produce, it creates jobs and wealth which circulates around the local economy.
“If we have to import more food from the UK, that wealth all stays in the UK.”
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Wages and Pensions are falling behind the true cost of living, hence every penny counts and shoppers have to look for the cheapest products.
I'm certain, if the excess was offered at cost + prices, it would not have been necessary to dump flowers and potatoes.
It is o.k. for Deputy Kirsten Morel to go electioneering again, giving double subsidy to farmers, I would ask HOW is he going to pay for that ? What service is he going to cut ??
Jersey does NOT have a money tree, whatever Morel spends, WE the taxpayer pays !