E. Oldroyd and Sons is one of the largest producers of forced rhubarb in the country. Chloe Palmer visits the family business to learn more about the Rhubarb Triangle and its popular vegetable.
West Yorkshire is the home of the unique tradition of forced rhubarb production, where pitch-black sheds full of pink, popping rhubarb plants and harvesting by candlelight are all part of the fascinating process.
At the heart of the success of the crop is the Oldroyd family who have been producing forced rhubarb in the famous Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle since 1930.
Janet Oldroyd-Hulme is now director of the family firm and she is proud of the family’s history and connection with rhubarb.
She says: “My great grandfather moved to Yorkshire from the family farm in Cambridgeshire in 1930 after the family lost much of its fortune in the Great Depression.
“He rented a small plot of land in Wakefield and grew fruit and vegetables, which he sold locally.”
He started growing rhubarb after learning the method from a local producer in exchange for his knowledge of strawberry production.
In 1933 his son, Ernest, joined him and shortly afterwards they were able to buy their own farm.
Janet’s father, Kenneth, took over the business in 1949 and the family name became synonymous with forced rhubarb.
“Rhubarb helped sustain the nation during World War II but when the war was over and tropical fruits became widely available, many people shunned it,” she explains.
“The Government began investing in rhubarb research to discover new, tastier varieties so people could be persuaded to buy the vegetable again.”
This investment was mirrored at Oldroyd’s where Kenneth took the gamble of significantly expanding production of outdoor and forced rhubarb.
Janet entered the business after starting her career as a medical scientist at St James Hospital, Leeds. Her scientific background gave her the interest in growing crops and the production process.
“My dad eventually put me in charge of root propagation and I pioneered the technique of using a scalpel to dissect the best roots to produce the next crop.”
She acknowledges the geographical location of the famous Rhubarb Triangle is no coincidence and provides exactly the right conditions.
“The Rhubarb Triangle is found between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, with most growers now found in the smaller area within Morley, Rothwell and Wakefield.
“We are nestled in the side of the Pennines and it is a frost pocket. We also have high rainfall here and it is a moist climate with an ideal soil type for the crop.”
Rhubarb originates from the banks of the River Volga in Siberia, Russia, with the earliest record dating back to 2700 BC.
It was initially used as a medicinal plant, and it was for this purpose it was first imported into Europe in the 13th century.
Referred to as the Rhacoma root, the drug was so much sought after it could command three times the price of Opium in 1657.
Rhubarb was first used in English cooking in the late 18th century but only gained favour when the forcing process was accidentally discovered in the Chelsea Physic Gardens in 1817.
Frost is central to the forced production process, partly because rhubarb originates from Siberia and it favours cold, damp conditions.
“The rhubarb is propagated from root stocks and then planted outside where they convert light and nutrients into glucose, and then into carbohydrate, which is stored in the roots.
“Last summer was the perfect season for root production because it was cool and damp.
“When we have the first frost, the plant begins converting carbohydrate back into glucose. When we have had just enough frost for each variety, we lift the roots and bring them into the dark sheds.”
There are many different varieties of rhubarb, many dating back to the studies at Stockbridge Research Institute in the 1960s.
Timperley rhubarb is one of the earliest varieties, requiring less frost but giving lower yields than the later Queen Victoria rhubarb.
Once in the sheds, the conditions are manipulated so the rhubarb responds to produce the sought-after pale, fleshy delicacy.
“The roots are placed directly onto the floor and most of the surface soil is washed off. The heat is turned up to 25degC to create a warm, damp atmosphere.
“The plants are tricked into thinking spring has arrived so they bud and and make a remarkable popping sound when the petioles grow upwards as they look for light,” says Janet.
Removing light prevents chlorophyll production so the rhubarb retains the pink colouring and the skin and fibre of the stick do not toughen.
“The forced rhubarb bears no relation to outdoor rhubarb because the flesh is white and it is more delicately flavoured and tender.”
Forced rhubarb commands a much higher price than outdoor-grown rhubarb harvested in summer as its production costs are so much higher.
“It takes three winters and two summers to propagate and prepare roots before they are ready to come into the sheds. Each set of roots provides a harvest of just four weeks.
“All stages of the process are labour intensive, with the additional cost of heat energy to the sheds which are only occupied for 12 weeks each year and must be maintained.
“Roots die at the end of the process, so a large acreage of root stocks is necessary, all contributing to the high production costs.”
The season is quite short as outdoor produced rhubarb is much cheaper and will displace the forced product when it becomes available.
From this initial discovery of blanching rhubarb, commercial growers in the London area lifted the roots and placed them in buildings to grow.
In 1877 the forcing of rhubarb began in Yorkshire and the Whitwell family of Leeds were considered to be the first large-scale grower.
The soil in the area proved perfect for growth of the substantial root systems necessary to produced sufficient yields of high quality sticks worthy of a premium price which could cover the high production costs.
At the height of the vegetable’s popularity, there were 200 growers in the Rhubarb Triangle. Now there are just 11.
Maintaining the quality of outdoor produced rhubarb requires precise methods, according to Janet.
“Our outdoor rhubarb season starts in April and usually finishes in mid-October. As each variety grows to its optimum length, we strip all the sticks off and feed the root, then the plant grows back quickly because it needs to regain the ability to photosynthesise. So we are always able to harvest fresh, tender stalks.”
Communicating to the customer is central to Janet’s marketing strategy and she has been running tours of the forced rhubarb sheds for almost 20 years.
“We want people to come to the farm so they understand the forced process with its associated costs of production.
“They learn about the superior product and how it can be cooked in many different ways and then we hope they will buy British.”
It was Janet’s customers who encouraged her to apply for protected designated origin (PDO) status for Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb and, although the process took six years, it has delivered benefits for the business.
“People were buying rhubarb from Holland thinking it was British. So I put together the application which means all producers of forced rhubarb in the Rhubarb Triangle can apply for PDO status.
“They will be audited to ensure the product meets strict quality control requirements and they must lie in the designated area.”
The family business produces strawberries from the first week in May through until October, helping to plug a dip in strawberry production.
“We fit in the middle geographically so our strawberries come after the peak of production in Kent and before Scotland.”
“We produce strawberries on table tops in poly-tunnels. We grow the sweet June bearers and then the ever-bearers which produce fruit through until October.”
Winter wheat and cauliflowers form part of the rotation across the farm to ensure effective weed control. Janet’s son, Lindsay, is responsible for farm operations.
He says: “We grow winter wheat one year in five to clean up the land after three years of rhubarb because over this period there is a build-up of weeds which cannot be sprayed off when rhubarb is in the ground without killing it.”
This year, the unseasonably mild winter weather has taken its toll on rhubarb production and they are concerned this may have implications for the business.
“Frost came late this year, losing us a month’s production. We will also have an early outdoor crop unless the weather changes, which means the forced rhubarb season could be shorter than usual as there will not be enough time to complete the process with a second batch of roots.”
Despite the challenges of climate change, Janet is upbeat about the future of their rhubarb.
“Farmers in this county are so good at what they do, so crops are high quality and plentiful. We are lucky because we have the history and story to go with our delicious product, so we hope this encourages our customers to buy from the Rhubarb Triangle.”