Berry Gardens highlights key role for migrant staff

Continued access to migrant labour is "critical", Berry Gardens Growers chairman Alastair Brooks said at Fruit Focus.

Coolio: Berry Gardens’ chilled unit praised by Capper - image: HW
Coolio: Berry Gardens’ chilled unit praised by Capper - image: HW

"If there is any serious interruption, it's a business-stopper. But we don't believe the Government wants that. Last year's bombshell was the National Living Wage, which we are meeting with more tabletops, bigger and quicker varieties, automated doors and venting - anything to reduce labour as a percentage of costs," he said.

Brooks added of the EU referendum result: "The reaction with us was pretty negative. I got our staff together to say 'you are still welcome'. Britain has always been a friendly, outgoing country. Part of the success of our soft-fruit industry has been access to the European economy."

On its other consequences, the soft and stone fruit growing co-operative's managing director Nick Marston said: "The EU's fruit and veg regime has helped the European industry hugely. It's been targeted funding, match funded by growers, so it's not been wasted. A successor UK scheme will be critical, especially if our competitors still have it. It wouldn't be a great expenditure for the exchequer." Brooks added: "We are lobbying hard for such a scheme. The infrastructure is still there - why not a 'UK fruit and veg regime'?"

Berry Gardens has 35 per cent of the UK berry market. On its current season, Marston said: "A dull March to June made all crops late, and so total volumes aren't yet in line with forecasts." But Brooks added: "Late seasons tend to create calamity as the supply concertinas up, but that's not happened this year."

Marston said of the market: "There's no reason why berries as a whole can't continue to enjoy double-digit annual growth for some time yet. That's due to the health benefits, varietal development giving better eating quality. According to Kantar, shoppers are switching from other fruit categories - apples, bananas, citrus - to berries, rather than from one berry to another."

On strawberries, he added: "People think it's a relatively mature category but they are still showing 12 per cent growth." Brooks said the new June-bearing variety Driscoll's Elizabeth is extending the season for premium berries. "Given the cost pressures we have had to make little steps in lots of areas. We are growing varieties that have a higher class-one percentage. Elsanta at 75 per cent class one doesn't work any more."

Raspberries "also have room for growth", said Marston, with the new primocane Driscoll's Riviera "filling a hole in the middle of Driscoll's Maravilla season, giving us a season-long supply". In the blackberry market, already worth £227m a year, he added: "With modern sweet-eating varieties like Driscoll's Victoria you can eat them fresh like any other berry."

Sales and procurement director Jacqui Green said: "Availability used to be patchy, but not now, and they are winning repeat purchases. The prime eating occasion for them is actually breakfast."

Blueberries "have been the berry that has grown most rapidly and is now worth £295m a year", said Marston. "We are planting them up in the UK - we are growing 60 per cent more this year than last - and with growers from the south coast up to Montrose, we can supply from early June to November, giving us a longer season than Chile."

Here again, Brooks said: "New varieties are giving us better size, uniformity and flavour." He described cherries as "a really exciting category for us", adding: "Our point of difference is we can sell them fresh and matured off the trees. Our problem is we don't have enough." Berry Gardens is responsible for "around 70 per cent" of UK cherry production, said Marston. "Roughly a third are sold in non-retail environments such as farmers' markets. There are still huge opportunities for retailers."

With very little winter chilling, then "miserable" weather during the blossom period, "we expect to produce only modestly more this season - it's not been the disaster that some outlets have portrayed", he added. "Fortunately, we have exclusive rights to Sequoia, which requires little chilling, and the late-season Centennial, giving us supply from mid June to late September."

Berry Gardens has also successfully trialled a small chilled unit, the "Coolio", intended to boost supermarket sales. "Consumer research shows impulse purchases and snacking are the fastest-growing food sales categories and we have responded to that," said Green.

"They are not in the fresh-produce fixture but by the sandwiches and at the tills, as an alternative to a Mars bar," she explained. "We trialled 50 units in 20 Tesco stores of different formats in Kent between February and April, and it's now being rolled out to hundreds of stores."

Praise for chilled unit

Berry Gardens' Coolio initiative was praised by NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper at a Fruit Focus session on industry promotion. "The soft-fruit industry is good at this - they have the consumer insight," she said.

"Other sectors are not as well funded and tend to leave it to retailers to provide those insights. But our Fit for the Future also has a lot of insights too, from which each business in our sector can take out action points."

NFU horticulture adviser Lee Abbey added: "There is a risk around any new initiative and we would call on the supply chain to share that risk." He said of the Fit for the Future report, published in April: "The reaction from retailers and Government has been extremely positive. One coffee shop chain is interested in bringing in a fruit range for children. There is a willingness to do more."

But he warned: "Consumers suffer 'decision fatigue' and consumption is falling. Fresh produce needs to focus on changing shopping and eating habits. We need a fair and transparent supply chain to enable growth. What are the barriers to increasing consumption?"

Capper added: "The Government will spend £5bn a year countering the obesity epidemic - could it seed-fund a campaign? It shouldn't be left to the industry. It comes down to eating more fruit and veg, it's that simple."

At the same session, groceries code adjudicator Christine Tacon said the industry could do more to alert her to unfair practices in the supply chain. "Fruit and vegetable people aren't really talking to me. I would like to hear more from them," she said.

"My survey says six out of ten suppliers have potential breaches and fresh produce is no different from other sectors, but I only get one or two (complaints) a week. People will tell me things face-to-face but they are less willing to put it in writing or an email. It would be useful for trade associations to say 'these are the top three issues in our industry'."

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