The UK strawberry season is getting underway with the early glasshouse fruit already on the shelves.
“We are well into strawberries and will start raspberries and blackberries the end of this week,” said Chris Rose at Asplins Producer Organisation.
“Glasshouse strawberries have been going for quite a while and tunnel fruit for a week or so. We had fantastic weather in April, the last week was a bit unsettled but it has warmed up again now. Volumes are starting come up considerably now, but last weekend due to the cooler weather we were short of fruit, it is more balanced now.”
It is still early in the English season, but at the start of lockdown when imported fruit was on the shelves sales fell initially at the first panic buying stage, but since then demand has risen. “There has been a general trend towards healthy eating in the last few years and people at the moment are very aware of enhancing their immune systems so I’m optimistic that demand will be strong, at the moment it is good.”
“People are shopping less often due to the lockdown, maybe once a week instead of two or three times, so we are moving into larger packs as volumes go up. We are expecting to sell more larger 600g and 800g packs and fewer 400g packs than we used to. At this stage of the season the shelf-life is very good, however that would change if the fruit was picked in the middle of a heatwave.”
There are a lot of concerns about too much supply given that there is no food service or catering industry at the moment, and according to Chris, the times when we would normally be in over supply will certainly be exacerbated by this. “Through the early peak we will be ok, but when the ever-bearer strawberries come on strongly in mid-July then we will have too much fruit around.
“Wimbledon actually comes at a dip in the English strawberry season, so not having that artificial peak is a positive, on the other hand if it means strawberries just not eaten and the plateau is lower then it is a problem.”
The labour situation is okay at the moment, but Chris is very cautious as so much still has to happen. The bulk of the UK soft fruit growers are just in the early picks, they have people on site from the planting. This is labour from Eastern Europe which was here before the lockdown.
“They are hoping to get more labour from Eastern Europe and there are signs that is going to happen and there is also labour from the UK. Farms have been inundated by enquiries and the experience of those who are further down the line is that you can get good workers from the UK but you have sift quite far down to find them and the fall out is quite high.
“I think some people have a romanticised view of it, but it is hard work and its not just the physicality of it, it’s the speed at which they need to pick to make it cost effective, piecework is backed up by the minimum wage. But for the growers if it is costing them too much its just not worth while so they have to get pickers up to an acceptable speed. If people are coming out thinking I’m going help our great British farmers but I just want to do three days a week, that is just not going to get the crop picked.”
The social distancing measures will undoubtedly be very challenging. Workers who come from Eastern Europe mostly live on site in caravans so one of the things growers are doing is treating each caravan of people as a family unit and each ‘family unit’ will socially distance from other units. These units together can also be kept together while working in the tunnels or packlines.
“One of the problems with the UK workers is that most of the people who want work live far away from the farms it is not practical for people to commute a long way, growers would prefer to have people living on site but UK people have homes and a family life and understandably don’t want to live on a farm, possibly younger people, students etc will see it as an adventure. Plenty of people are interested but when it comes down to the practicalities of it, they are not able to take it up, it’s not just because they don’t want to, sometimes the practicalities just won’t work.”
This will be an extremely good test run for post Brexit ending of freedom of movement in 2021 according to Chris. “We will learn a lot about how much we can get in terms of UK labour, because we will never get more that we have this summer. If it is a struggle then we will know we have done everything we can to get local labour and this was the result, I don’t think it will be entirely successful but there may be some successes.”