Salad supply plummets due to unprecedented adverse Spanish and Italian weather

John McCann, Willowbrook Foods, inspecting floods in Spain
John McCann, Willowbrook Foods, inspecting floods in Spain

Extreme weather conditions in continental Europe, from snow to frost and torrential rain, continue to seriously impact the supply of lettuce and other fresh vegetables to the retail and foodservice sectors in the UK and Ireland.

Salad leaves are predominately sourced from the Mediterranean from October onwards, due to the usually favourable growing climate. However, since December 2016, severe weather conditions in Spain have led to massive implications for growers, with up to four weeks of planting being lost and huge amounts of existing crops being destroyed.

Flooded Spanish lettuce field

Flooded Spanish lettuce field

John McCann MBE, managing director of Ireland’s largest bagged salad processor Willowbrook Foods, has been on site in the Murcia region of Spain for the past week, working hand in hand with growers through the crisis.

“The soil and climate in Murcia is normally ideal for growing all crops in the winter months, but is especially suited to lettuce production. Yet for the past two months, the region has had catastrophic natural extremes of climate to deal with, resulting in severe shortages and farmers facing 80% irreparable crop damage,” John explains.

Climate problems began with severe drought and shortage of irrigation water in the autumn, which caused plants to die. Heavy, continual rain following this led to floods.

Describing the scene from Spain, John continues: “I have witnessed first-hand the devastation of these floods, which have washed away planted crops and turned fields into lakes. Mud has washed over level fields with crop, and those fields due to be planted, have become rivers of mud.

The soil and climate in Murcia is normally ideal for growing all crops in the winter months, but is especially suited to lettuce production. Yet for the past two months, the region has had catastrophic natural extremes of climate to deal with, resulting in severe shortages and farmers facing 80% irreparable crop damage.

John McCann MBE, Managing director, Willowbrook Foods

“The average Murcia temperatures in mid-January should be 16°c during the day and 8°c at night, but these have plunged to -2°c at night and 2°c some days. Rain has turned to sleet and snow in many areas, causing further flooding,” said John.

John believes the situation could continue for at least another six weeks, with huge knock-on effects for UK and Ireland businesses: “The crops are 80% unusable and with up to four weeks of planting missed and little or no growth happening, a disaster is unfolding. What happens next will depend on the temperatures over the coming weeks.”

Like so many other companies, Co Down based Willowbrook Foods has been unable to fulfil orders to its large network of retail and foodservice customers.  

“Last week we had a shortage level of up to 70%, which is completely unheard of in our business,” continued John.

Spanish floods

Spanish floods

“Given the ever-evolving nature of the situation, we have been committed to updating our customers every day and working in close partnership with growers in hope for a solution,” he said.

John is continuing to travel to Spain along with Willowbrook Foods’ head of procurement on a rotating basis, to evaluate the situation and continue to feed back to customers on a daily basis.