Wimbledon, tennis, sunshine and strawberries… what could be more British?
Berries have become a British farming success story, with all the strawberries for Wimbledon in recent years coming from Hugh Lowe Farms, a founder member of a very special co-operative, Berry Gardens.
Twenty years ago, though, the fortunes of British berries were very different.
Jacqui Green, CEO of Berry Gardens Grower Co-op, told the story at a recent event for farmer co-ops we organised in the run up to Co-operatives Fortnight.
In 1996, the UK produced 40,000 tonnes of strawberries. It was a very short production season and, as Jacqui put it, all too often rain stopped play. Labour was plentiful for picking but it wasn’t an altogether efficient process.
What made a key difference was the recognition of Berry Gardens as a producer organisation under the EU Fruit & Vegetable Aid Scheme.
Today, the UK produces 115,000 tonnes of strawberries, using a variety of simple and complex technologies to support a longer season, now running from March to October. 99% of strawberries are now rain covered – with poly tunnels – and picking and sorting techniques have improved, with table tops and mechanisation.
The same story holds for soft fruit more widely.
A decade ago, farmers sold around 377 tonnes of UK cherries to retailers. Today, it is 4,600 tonnes. The proportion of households eating cherries has risen over the same period from one in four (28.8%) to two in five (38.8%). Along with an investment in equipment through the co-op (able to call on farm support under the Common Agricultural Policy as a producer organisation) came knowledge sharing on tree stocks and technology.
Over the period, the health benefits of berries has supported the growth of the sector, with consumer advice encouraging a switch to low sugar fruits for balanced energy.
The challenges today are very different to those of twenty years ago. There are labour shortages, high setup costs for new entrants, a price squeeze with food price deflation and the inevitable tussles with supermarkets on what returns come back to the growers. Climate change, with water use and scarcity, is a key factor as agriculture looks to move towards sustainable farming. The average age of soft fruit farmers is 57, making succession a key issue.
And then there is the larger question mark of Brexit for UK farming, bringing a combination of factors that I have described as the potential ‘perfect whirlwind’.
Berry Gardens is the UK’s leading berry and stone fruit production and marketing group with sales in 2017 of £346 million, a market share over 30% and a year round business supplying all of Britain’s leading retailers. It promises that:
“our co-operative roots mean we can promise honesty and openness in our dealings and deliver this to all stakeholders.”
The business is one of Britain’s successful farmer co-operatives. Our recent Co-operative Economy reports that there are 420 co-ops in agriculture, with a turnover of £7.7 billion.
The last year has seen a reconnection too between these and the consumer-owned food retail co-operatives, with a commitment by The Co-op Group to be the first national retailer to source 100% of its meat from British farmers.
The opportunities though are still greater. Total market share for co-ops, at around 6%, is lower though than most of our European partners.
So enjoy the tennis, enjoy the sun and the strawberries. After all, the Telegraph has named strawberries as the UK’s number 1 favourite fruit.
As a thriving farmer-owned business at the heart of British Summer, Berry Gardens is a perfect example of the co-operative difference.