A Cambridgeshire farm has produced a record crop of the tropical fruit this year, despite the ‘challenging’ British climate.
Originally hailing from southern Africa, watermelons and their distinctive green rind and red flesh are traditionally associated with palm trees and tropical climates rather than the British countryside.
However, this year’s washout summer has not prevented one UK farm from growing its biggest ever crop of the exotic fruit, in what marks a new domestic production record.
Oakley Farms in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, estimates it has doubled last year’s harvest by producing 11,000 watermelons this summer, despite the UK experiencing its sixth wettest July on record.
Nick Molesworth, the farm’s manager, admitted that the fruit is “not that easy to grow”, adding that the British climate “can also be challenging”. The bumper crop, housed in polytunnels, has come after several years of trialling different growing methods to obtain more fruits from each plant.
Oakley Farms, which also cultivates other cucurbits including pumpkins and courgettes, ventured into watermelons after being approached by Britain’s largest grocer, Tesco, seven years ago. “It made good sense as the crop would fit in perfectly between production of courgettes in late spring and pumpkins in early autumn,” said Molesworth.
James Cackett, a fruit technical manager for Tesco, has worked for the past 15 years with seed houses and British growers on developing varieties of watermelon that are more suitable for the UK climate and soil.
It remains a “small and developing industry with just a handful of producers scattered around the UK”, Cackett said. “When we first started selling them, in very small quantity, about 10 years ago shoppers were curious whether such an exotic-looking fruit could ever be grown over here.
“But they are now very popular with shoppers wanting to support British growers and each year demand gets stronger so it doesn’t take long for the entire crop to sell out.”
The homegrown fruit – sold in a standard and mini size – have a sticker to identify them as British-grown. Tesco is pricing the crop at £3.49 each for the standard size and £2.50 for the mini size.
This year has seen a “particular trend for smaller watermelons”, according to Waitrose. A spokesperson for the grocer said: “As the summer weather has improved, searches for ‘mini watermelons’ on our website and app have risen 88% this month compared with last.”
Continued rainy weather in July and August has dampened consumers’ taste for tropical treats in recent weeks, particularly when compared with last year’s hot summer.
Despite this, the market for watermelons, and tropical fruits more widely, has been growing apace over the past five years, according to figures from market research firm Kantar.
Sales of watermelons over the past year were worth £56m, more than 11% higher than in 2019.
British supermarkets sold £618m worth of all tropical fruits in the year to 6 August – an increase of nearly 8% compared with the same period five years earlier.
While Oakley Farms sees watermelons as “a natural evolution” of its business, an industry body representing British growers does not believe that many others will follow suit at a time when food producers are under financial pressure.
Jack Ward, the chief executive of the British Growers Association, which represents the vast majority of domestic fruit and vegetable producers and horticulture businesses, said: “Growers are coming off a period where costs were high and returns haven’t kept face with inflation, so many don’t want to take on more risk.
“Labour is getting more and more difficult, and you have got be confident that if you are going to plant a crop, especially for one retailer, that it will be the right specification.”
For now the UK remains dependent on imports. Large quantities of the fruit are produced in China and Turkey, as well as in US states including Florida and California, and countries farther south such as Mexico and Guatemala.