Supermarket shelves are groaning under the weight of baby veggies. From the good old staples like baby corn, carrots and mixed marrows, to newer innovations like baby spinach, cauliflower, cabbage and spring onions, the list of baby veg is ever expanding writes Robyn Joubert.
The trend towards the “young and tender” vegetables is ballooning into salads. More and more baby leaf salads are popping up in supermarkets: Woolworths’ newer baby salads include packs of baby butter lettuce, baby leaf Italian salad, and a salad of green, immature edamame soyabeans with tendrils of rocket.
“Woolworths customers are buying more young and tender leaves such as micro herbs and baby leaves,” says Woolworths. “They increasingly want more flavourful, aromatic and tender leaves – and this has led to the increased popularity of baby leaves.”
Woolworths sells a variety of leaves to give customers an interesting assortment of shapes, such as frilly leaves and boat-shaped leaves. Richard Cherry-Holme, Pick ’n Pay baby produce buyer, says European trends have lead the chainstore to expect an increased interest in baby leaves and the chainstore is in the midst of launching a new range of baby veg and leaves.
“Our innovation team has done their homework and spent time in Europe to identify the fads overseas. One of our growers in Kenya also supplies the likes of Tesco, so we are in line with what is happening there.” Pick in Pay’s new baby leaf salads include baby red spinach, baby Asian leaf, as well as a range of salad mixes like watercress and baby leaf, a baby Cos and herb salad, and a baby gem lettuce. Other products on Pick ‘n Pay’s launchpad are baby runner beans, baby pea and corn mix, baby brinjals, baby fennel, a baby savoy and baby red cabbage mix and sweet baby peppers. Richard estimates that 30%-40% of his baby veg order is sourced from neighbouring countries. Locally, he uses one farmer, with one farm in Bapsfontein and another in Swaziland. His salads are sourced locally on the East Rand.
“We experienced problems with baby veg availability last summer, when the temperatures just got too hot,” he says. “As a result we try to source product from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Swaziland and sometimes Egypt. We have had a lot more success and although we pay more for transport than we’d like, it gives us a more consistent supply to stores.”
Organic farmer Derek Martin is in the developmental stage of producing a range of baby vegetables on his farm on the Caversham Road in the Midlands, including baby lettuce, baby beetroot, baby parsnips, baby spring onions and baby oriental greens like pak choi and bak choi.
“There is strong demand for organic baby veggies at upmarket restaurants in Durban and the Midlands,” Derek says. “Baby veggies also sell very well at the morning markets. Customers like the freshness and novelty aspect of baby veg.”
Derek’s baby lettuce requires a ten-day growing period. “As soon as the lettuce is at the seedling stage, we stress it by giving it limited water and then sell it as a baby veg. We don’t let our veg grow to maturity as restaurants want tender, juicy, fresh and young produce. Ninety percent of our herbs also go out young. That costs extra but restaurants are prepared to pay as long as the quality is high.”
While Derek is fortunate to have clean borehole water to wash his leaves, it is common practice in the industry to wash with chlorine. “Chlorine is still widely used to wash leaves as our search for alternatives has not yet yielded a viable alternative,” says Woolworths. “Washing improves the shelf life of the product and removes undesirable components such as sand and insects or worms. Washing procedures for leaves differ as some leaves are more sensitive than others for bruising. However, chlorine is not used when washing Woolworths organic leaves.”
While Derek sells his baby veg at the same price as mature veg, he says the profits are higher. “The profit comes as you are selling the babies three to four weeks earlier than regular-sized vegetables so you turn over the land quicker and increase productivity.”
At Pick n Pay however, a pack of baby cabbage costs R10 as opposed to R4,99 for a large cabbage. “This means baby veg will always appeal to the top end of the market,” Richard says. But even with this limited target market, Richard believes the potential of baby veg has not yet been maxed. “There is definitely a growing interest in baby veg. It is an exciting category with a lot of potential.”
Year on year, Richard estimates Pick n Pay’s baby veg category has grown by about 15%. Growth in Gauteng Hyper stores stands at about 10%, while it is 30% in the northern regions and 60% in coastal Hyper stores.
Derek Martin on 082 445 6606 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw