As we come into the Hungry Gap, we're rerunning a piece from last year to explain about and educate on what happens during this point in the UK's growning season:
The past few weeks have been glorious, full of sunshine, dry, clear skies and balmy temperatures. It lifts the spirits and warms the soul to be outside. However, for a farmer, these days bring uncertainty and concern. We’ve used the term ‘hungry gap’ casually to refer to this time, and it’s showing it’s barrenness this week with many substitutions and “this or that” selections in this week’s bags. This seems to completely not jive with the beautiful days and green scenery of Spring in full force. It’s worth taking a closer look into what this time actually means, why it happens, and how it is affecting you – our customers – the farmers and veg boxes across the UK right now.
Over the last two weeks, we’ve heard these headlines from our suppliers:
I’m afraid the Hungry Gap is well and truly here now and next week is going to be tricky, especially with the Bank Holiday. – Better Food Shed
The Hungry Gap is at it’s deepest now with very limited homegrown vegetables available - Sarah Green Organics
It has been a tough week on the ordering side (Hungry Gap!!!), so I’ve had to do a few more splits/substitutes – Susan, Local Greens Buyer
By definition, the ‘hungry gap’ is the period in spring when there is little or no fresh produce available from a vegetable garden or allotment, or your local, organic farm1. This period usually encompasses April, May and early-June. It is caused by the UK’s unique latitude and temperate oceanic climate. Much of northwestern Europe, such as France and the Netherlands, are in this climate zone, as well as New Zealand, extreme southeastern Australia, and isolated high-altitude zones on other continents. In practical terms, this means we enjoy “generally cool summers and cool but not cold winters, with a relatively narrow annual temperature range and few extremes of temperature… and precipitation is more evenly dispersed throughout the year”2 rather than having a dry/wet season. (N.B.: this is shifting as climate evolves, but for now that’s our definition).
Our historically mild climate means that the ground typically doesn’t freeze and cultivation continues through the winter, known as “overwintering.” Farmers can plant crops in the autumn to harvest in colder months. We owe our thanks to the brassica family of vegetables – with the familiar faces of Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflowers, kale, turnips, swede and purple sprouting broccoli – for feeding our forebears through many a winter and providing hearty nutrition when the days are dark. However, eventually by March, the days get warmer, and these crops “bolt,” meaning they flower and can no longer be harvested. This is where things get tricky. Because of its latitude, the UK is at the geographical limit for many spring crops, which would not survive our cold winter temperatures if grown any earlier. As our supplier Paul Wells at Walmestone Growers states, “winter crops finish, and you can’t suddenly turn a field that had kale into a new crop, like courgettes. It takes three months.”
When T.S. Eliot penned, “April is the cruelest month,” he likely was not thinking about the hungry gap, but he certainly had the right idea. If you’ve been storing your winter vegetables, “April is when cold stores of onions, potatoes and other roots begin to run out and also there’s not much by way of fresh produce coming out of fields,” the company Farmdrop notes3. Centuries ago, perhaps it was easier to be hungry when the weather was warm and days lighter, rather than in the dread of winter.
Yet, we live in modern times so why should we have to endure the farming hardships of bygone eras? Commercial box scheme, Riverford, observes that, “these days, however, very few people eat a local, seasonal diet; the supermarkets can easily top up their shelves with even more imported produce, or crops grown in the UK under heated glass, and no one need notice the difference.”4 You could easily visit your nearest supermarket and fill a trolley with all sorts of produce grown in Thailand, Mexico, Tanzania and Morocco. But if you wanted to do that, then you probably wouldn’t have joined a local, organic box scheme, would you? There is a case for importing crops when it makes sense. In Riverford’s studies, they took the example of tomatoes: “The huge amounts of heat used in glass hothouses [to produce UK-grown tomatoes] is produced by burning gas or oil. For every kilo of tomatoes grown this way, 2-3 kilos of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Trucking tomatoes over from Spain uses just a tenth of the carbon compared with growing them in the UK using heat. It’s not perfect, but it’s the least damaging option.” Local Greens focuses on UK-grown crops and buying from small organic farms, thus the hungry gap is a reality that will endure for as long as we have our temperate oceanic climate.
Now you know why this week you may find pak choi or chard or lettuce or spring onions or radishes or broad beans or…some other delightful early spring crop in your bags. Our farmers are doing their best to evaluate their fields and harvest what is available, and we are doing our best to bring the freshest selection of that crop to you. It’s a fickle few weeks, but it’s almost over. The good news is that British asparagus is the first sign that the gap is ending and change is on the way. Your bags will also lighten up, literally, as we move away from root veggies to the leafy greens of Summer. In less than 30 days we will officially be in the bounty that is Summer and the hungry gap with be a memory for another year.