Doris Lee Butterworth talks to leading producers and gathers their opinions in this week's FPJ:
There are high hopes that 2010 will result in another strong year for home¬grown berries. Good climatic conditions in the run-up to the harvest will boost production. In addition, the efforts made by growers to bring forward the strawberry season should offset the effects of the weather to some extent.
"A good run from now would pull production back to no more than a week," says Dave Ashton, procurement director at BerryWorld. "Our overall production of strawberries will rise this season."
Berry Gardens, which recently unveiled its new image, says production may be later than last year - which was very early - but not so late that there might be shortages. "There will be plenty of British strawberries for June and for Wimbledon," says managing director Nick Marston.
Early raspberry crops may be delayed by one to two weeks, although raspberry production peaks in July and sources say it is too early to say whether crops will be delayed.
BerryWorld says timings for raspberries are similar to last year, as nearly all of its raspberry and blueberry production is based in the South.
Double skins, tunnel ends, side skirts and partitioning are used to bring on crops on early sites and Marston says these initiatives have been very valuable in bringing strawberry and raspberry crops forward.
Back in February, media reports predicted that Scottish strawberry production would fall this year following the coldest winter in 30 years. However, growers do not anticipate a shortfall in Scotland. "Plant losses were almost all in substrate systems and our growers have replanted any lost plants," Marston tells FPJ.
Indeed, Berry Gardens predicts a rise in berry production this season. "We anticipate a three to four per cent increase in strawberries, a 15 per cent increase in raspberries (where Berry Gardens is growing far faster than the market) and a 100 per cent increase in UK blueberries as more plantings start to crop," Marston explains. "The UK berry market continues to grow; we remain virtually self-sufficient on strawberries, we are now self-sufficient on raspberries and blackberries, and we are increasing blueberry production."
Indeed, UK blueberry production is increasingly rapidly and will stand at more than 1,500 tonnes this year, according to Stephen Taylor, managing director of Winterwood Farms. Last season was the first year that there was a real rise in UK blueberry production and this year will see a further large percentage increase.
As the UK blueberry industry is very young, most growers are planting the newer varieties as part of their variety mix. "Blueberries are fairly site-specific and so no one is going to trust a large area to an untested variety," Taylor explains. "When you combine this with five years to get anywhere near full production, then you will never see a sudden introduction of anything new - it is more an evolving process."
Up until 2008, retailers could sell domestic blueberries at a large premium and the low quantities available made the prices sustainable, according to Taylor. As 2009 saw the first signs of resistance to prices that were significantly higher than imports, he predicts that the trend will be for the margin between the two to successively decrease.
Taylor adds: "The big question that UK growers want to know the answer to is whether the UK consumer will pay any more for home-grown blueberries, as it is not possible to make a profit if they have to sell at the imported price. My feeling is that the UK grower has the advantage of having young plants and therefore, in theory, the average quality of the fruit should be high. Appearance should therefore be good and the UK consumer will probably pick up UK fruit in preference to imports if there is only a 10-15 per cent price difference."
However, sugar levels of UK fruit may be lower on average than fruit coming from the south of France or Poland and therefore Taylor says it will be interesting to gauge consumer reaction when it comes to eating the fruit.
Taylor believes that the rush to plant blueberries has now ended, although that is not to say that plantings will not continue on a slower scale. The number of UK growers producing blueberries could also change in the next five years as some growers drop out due to the difficulties of growing the fruit in an area that is not suitable for the plants, while economic forces could also curtail activity.
"This will be made doubly difficult if UK growers cannot achieve the same yields as Polish or French growers," Taylor explains. "In France, there are comparable wages but high yields, while in Poland the yields are not as great but the labour of picking is a lot cheaper than in the UK, and the cost per kilo of picking is a considerable part of the overall cost."
Berry Gardens growers have planted British blueberries from the south of England right up to the north of Scotland. These berries are now coming into production and Marston says that the company's geographic spread and temperate climate will give it a much longer season. It will be able to market fresh blueberries from August through to October.
Growers say that demand for early-season UK berries is normally excellent and reasonable weather throughout the summer months will further boost prospects. This year's FIFA World Cup, coupled with potential fine weather during the competition, may also benefit soft-fruit sales, in Ashton's opinion.
Premium lines and organics have been the main casualties of the recession, but Taylor argues that demand for these products is already edging upwards. "I think that in a year's time, these will be back to previous levels and we predict that organics will get back their position even quicker," he says.
Regarding new varieties, everbearers Amesti and Pasedena both performed well last season and Marston says flavour, appearance and shelf life were well received by customers. "Both varieties are higher yielding than current everbearers and our area of these two varieties is increasing substantially," Marston says.
Cordelia is still in commercial trials and according to Marston, looks promising as it is high yielding and fruit quality is good.
Berry Gardens growers benefit from using Driscoll's raspberry varieties, says Marston. He adds: "These berries are grown using a variety of techniques in the UK to produce excellent fruit from May through to October and we are squeezing out competition through the quality of this offer. Where retailers stock Driscoll's product, sales go up and waste goes down."
BerryWorld does not plan to launchm any new varieties this year, but will build on the success of its everbearers, Sweet
Eve and Eve's Delight. "These varieties are exclusive to BerryWorld growers and this will be our second year of volume," says Ashton. "Both continue to be extremely well received across the high street and over two-thirds of our total everbearers will be these varieties this year."
The producer also has some "very promising" selections being trialled this year, but not in commercial quantities.
BerryWorld's exclusive T-Plus raspberry is also increasing production on last year.
Top-sealing packaging is an important initiative for the berry sector and it benefits the environment, growers and retailers, says Taylor. Top-sealing packaging offers many advantages, including using up to 20 per cent less plastic, therefore making it slightly cheaper for growers and easier to handle for retailers. "It is nice to have an innovation that is good for the environment that actually saves money, rather than adds to cost," Taylor adds.
He argues that too many environmental initiatives are being used for PR purposes. "We are recycling some products now that use more energy than they save by the time you calculate the cost and pollution caused by the lorry going round the country picking up small volumes. There is also a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to food miles - it is the miles per kilo transported that is important and not the distance from the grower to the store. For example, it uses less energy and fuel per punnet of fruit to take a full truck from Kent to Scotland than is used by the average shopper taking home their shopping in their car a couple of miles away."
Taylor argues that the berry industry has a lot working in its favour and concentrating on the positives such as health benefits should be enough, rather than trying to play one fruit off another.
But berries remain a labour-intensive crop and sources say labour costs can only ever rise. "The costs of growing increase year on year and growers need to ensure they maximise yield potential to counter this," Ashton says. "BerryWorld holds regular grower days to share individual techniques and ideas, with one aim of making its growers more profitable."
Substrate production is becoming more widely used as it reduces labour costs and is also suited to more permanent sites, which makes it attractive if expensive planning permission has to be obtained for a particular site, Marston says.
Meanwhile, planning applications for polytunnels are costly and time consuming, and this could limit many growers' appetite for expansion and/ or the opening of new sites.
However, producers are concentrating on the positives and say that the Seasonal Berries campaigns are helping to boost consumer demand year round.
Widespread publicity generated by niche products such as BerryWorld's pineberry is also furthering the cause, while promoting the health benefits of darker-coloured fruits such as blueberries, blackberries and blackcurrants aids growth potential.
"Berry growth is still very good and as we continue to put better varieties on our customers' shelves, this can only increase demand further," adds Ashton.http://freshinfo.com/