Enjoying Yorkshire rhubarb

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting a number of farmers who work in the “rhubarb triangle” — the area between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield which leads the world in the production of “forced rhubarb”. This remarkable growing technique involves developing the plant’s root system for an extended period, then transplanting it into dark warm sheds where it grows intensively in controlled conditions. The result is an unusually flavoursome vegetable with a unique colour, and it depends for its success on the particular combination of soil and weather conditions present in this small area.

This is a highly specialised agricultural business whose markets are not just the supermarkets (with the well-known difficulties of that particular relationship) but also specialist caterers, elite restaurant chefs, and — increasingly — soft drink manufacturers: apparently rhubarb juice is the latest late-night trend in swanky London bars!

I was also interested to learn of the ways in which Britain’s European Union membership helps these farmers. This is a small-scale industry which, as it happens, exports little to other EU countries. There is some demand for the product (and some inferior competition!) in France and the Netherlands, but broadly the market is mostly domestic, helped by the recent consumer interest in “buying local”. Nonetheless, the conversation revealed at least four ways in which the EU helps their business model.

First, Yorkshire forced rhubarb’s special European status as a Protected Designation of Origin product marks it out as a food with guaranteed quality and authenticity. Yorkshire rhubarb successfully achieved this status a few years ago (a process in which I was happy to be involved), giving it a special status alongside champagne, parma ham and Wensleydale cheese as a guaranteed local product, protected against imitations. Both in Britain and across the rest of Europe, the PDO label is a signal of quality to customers. The farmers I spoke to were most concerned that this designation would be lost if Britain left the EU.

Second, I was told that without financial support for agriculture from the European Union, their businesses would have gone under years ago. Of course, if we quit the EU, it’s pretty certain that we would continue to subsidise our agriculture — every industrialised economy in the world does so. But we would lose the big benefit of the level playing field that our Europe-wide Common Agricultural Policy gives. Without this, every country in the single market would be competitively subsidising its own agriculture, giving unfair competitive advantages to farmers in the countries with the highest subsidies (probably France) against the rest of us. By maintaining a common system with common rules, we protect British industry from an overseas-government-sponsored price war.

Third, I was fascinated to learn about medical research done by the University of York and Sheffield Hallam into the possible therapeutic benefits of rhubarb, especially in the fight against cancer. Apparently, the particular variety of acid present in rhubarb could help protect our bodies from cancerous cells. Yorkshire farmers have been keen participants in this research, which is funded by the European Union. Sharing the costs of expensive research among EU countries, rather than reproducing the same work multiple times in multiple places, is a prime example of how spending money at EU level can save money at national level, and bring even better results.

Finally, it was no surprise to learn that EU freedom of movement was an important part of these farmers’ business models. The work of forced rhubarb farming is inescapably seasonal, and the ability of agricultural workers from elsewhere in Europe to travel back and forth to support them at key times was described as a “godsend” by some of the farmers I met. While these farmers sought reassurance on issues of immigration generally (like many other local people I speak to), they were crystal clear on the general point: in an era of increased pressure on the entire agricultural sector, without EU freedom of movement, Yorkshire rhubarb simply would not exist any longer.

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