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Keeping up with kale: how farmers fare when food turns trendy

Kale may be the superfood that became a culinary staple, but its rapid rise shines a light on how we embrace trend-led diets. Jason Deans speaks to one kale grower about bringing the brassica to the masses.

Kale, so long the poor relation of the brassica family, has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past decade or so. It’s now an established foodie fashion item, marketed as a nutritious superfood and feted by tastemakers such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Yotam Ottolenghi.

Historical records suggest kale has been cultivated and consumed across western Europe for many centuries. It is an ingredient of many traditional dishes ranging from colcannon in Ireland to the Tuscan soup ribollita, which uses the Italian kale variety cavolo nero.

In the UK, kale featured in the second world war Dig for Victory campaign, with hard-pressed households urged to grow it in their gardens and allotments during wartime rationing of other staples.

However, kale fell out of fashion as the range of groceries expanded again following the end of rationing in the 1950s, grown for cattle feed and often relegated for culinary purposes to use as a garnish. The relatively rough texture and bitter taste of kale varieties available at the time also counted against it, along with the normal cooking method of boiling the leaves, creating an unappetising mush.

The turnaround began in the 2000s, first in the US, as new varieties offered a more appealing taste and growers began marketing kale as a superfood for its health benefits. It is a rich source of vitamins A, C and K, and contains useful amounts of dietary minerals such as manganese and copper.

Kale benefited from the growing demand for fresh and organic produce, finding new outlets to consumers via farmers’ markets and home-delivered vegetable boxes. The previously shunned brassica also began popping up on the menus of fashionable New York restaurants such as the Fat Radish. It had definitely hit the cultural mainstream by 2014, when Beyoncé wore a “KALE” sweatshirt in the music video for her song 7/11.

In the US, growers responded by producing 60% more kale in 2012 compared with 2007, with the number of farms harvesting the vegetable growing from fewer than 1,000 to 2,500 over the same period, according to US Department of Agriculture figures. By 2013, mentions of kale on US restaurant menus had rocketed 400% in five years, and the following year one US supermarket chain reported it was selling 22,000 bunches a day.

That’s a lot of leaves shifted as a result of the label “superfood”. How do growers spot , respond to and monetise food trends?

In the UK, Lincolnshire-based vegetable farmer Emmett UK, which has been working with Tesco for more than 30 years, noticed something stirring in the brassica patch in 2012, when it conducted research into up-and-coming food trends around the world and spotted the potential of kale.

“We did a piece of work that looked at what was in cookbooks and on recipes and on menus in the more trendy restaurants across the world,” says Alex Boughton, Emmett UK managing director.

“What’s out there that’s not in supermarkets but is in restaurants? It creates a trend model. That was one of the catalysts of realising that there was a [kale] movement coming.”

“We loved kale before it was cool”, Emmett UK’s website proudly boasts. It has roots in the Emmett family farming business, growing fruit and veg since the 1970s. From the 2000s, the company began running a marketing campaign for its four core products: kale, cavolo nero, spinach and leek – investing about £500,000 over a decade. But it really began expanding its kale business from 2012.

As in the US, consumer demand for kale rocketed in the UK on the back of its elevation to superfood status. Having done its homework, Emmett UK was ready to take advantage of the movement. It shared its research on the emerging food trend with Tesco, and the two worked together on how to increase the production, distribution and promotion of kale.

“We had an arrangement with Tesco that, right, we’re going to ramp up our growing, but you guys need to put some effort into selling it,” says Boughton – mitigating the risk of amping up production.

Mindful of kale’s (real) health benefits, Tesco committed to spotlighting it in its healthy eating marketing plan, building awareness and publishing kale recipes.

“So we were able to get ahead of it, we were able to get it grown,” says Boughton. “The trend started appearing, and we ran promotions and increased distribution.

“We doubled our acreage several years in a row to keep up with demand … we worked together with Tesco and we were able to sell what we’ve grown and to make the most of the increase in demand.”

Annual UK sales of kale almost trebled from £12.7m to nearly £35m between 2013 and 2017 and have remained above £30m – with Emmett UK leading the charge. Production has been ramped up significantly, from about 10 tonnes per week in 2007 to 46 tonnes on average. This year Emmett UK will plant about 175 hectares in the UK.

In an average week, about 10 lorryloads of kale might depart from Emmett UK’s Fosdyke processing plant – “a lot of leaves”, as Boughton says – but when demand peaks, output can double.

“We’ve had a 90-tonne week with Tesco before. When a promotion’s on we can jump from 46 tonnes in a week to nearly 100,” he adds.

While Boughton points out that demand for kale remains high all year round, he says the biggest sales weeks will inevitably be the first three or four weeks of January, “when everyone needs a smoothie because they’ve had too much Christmas cake. And then it usually starts dropping off from the fourth week because everyone’s given up”.

Which does emphasise our fickle relationship with what we eat …

Over the past decade, kale consumption has grown exponentially

Aside from being untrue, hailing anything as an all-powerful “it” food can severely impact the ecosystem it hails from. Avocado, for instance, must be imported, and its cultivation has been linked to a number of environmental issues. Similar concerns have been raised about “superfoods” from quinoa to almonds.

How, then, if at all, can we pursue dietary whims, food trends and changes of taste responsibly?

An obvious first step is focusing on foods that don’t need to be imported – minimising the supply chain to supermarkets and limiting their carbon footprint. Kale can be grown across the UK, so the environmental impact of the increase in demand is negligible compared with other products swept up in the superfoods trend.

For growers, kale also has the benefit of being a hardy and versatile crop that can survive winter frosts and summer heat. Favourable conditions mean Emmett UK has been able to hone its operation – working to reduce its use of herbicides and pesticides, reduce the acreage of kale planted and get better yields.

On top of this, a partnership like Emmett UK and Tesco, where production and promotion are planned together, helps keep food waste to a minimum – a core focus for the supermarket.

Beyond day-to-day operations, Emmett UK is exploring other benefits of kale, working with the Macular Society on the potential benefits of the lutein-rich veg for sufferers of macular degeneration.

“Kale is more than just a vegetable on the side,” says Boughton. “Don’t just boil it to death. Put it on at breakfast, have it at lunchtime; put a handful of it into most things and you’ve added more nutrients and goodness to the dish.”

Superfood or not, it’s a sentiment that has given the lesser-loved leaf a permanent place in our diets.

Eat your greens
Making kale mainstream is just one part of Tesco’s work to help customers make healthier choices.

“Our early investment in kale meant we were able to provide our customers with a healthy, British-grown product,” says produce director Darren Clough.

Kale formed part of Tesco’s “fresh five” and “helpful little swaps” initiatives – encouraging shoppers to hit their five-a-day and make quick dietary changes – and starred in chef-devised recipes. At the same time, Tesco took sweets off counters and set their own targets to slash salt and sugar in own-brand food and drink. For more on Tesco’s work to improve our food, visit tescoplc.com/sustainability

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