The UK berry fruit market "could get up to £1bn this year", Berry Gardens managing director Nick Marston has said. Latest Kantar data valued the market at £960m for the 52 weeks to 21 June.
Speaking at last month's Fruit Focus event, he said: "We don't forecast a slowdown in berry sales. Fresh produce overall is edging downwards but people are switching to berries from bananas, citrus and apples."
This year in strawberries: "We have already caught up with last year and values are similar. We still expect to sell 20,000 tonnes to the supermarkets - a seven per cent increase on last year and the largest since 2011."
Glasshouse production this season has risen by 37 per cent to 1,210 tonnes, with Driscoll's Lusa proving "a terrific early variety", he added.
Group chairman Alastair Brooks said new Driscoll's-bred June-bearing variety Rosalie will serve as a replacement for Sonata and Elsanta, scoring better for flavour and shelf life as well as fruit size, while Amesti "is particularly good for table-top through autumn".
On raspberries, Marston said: "We expect to end on a better average price than last year." Larger fruit size is helping to cut picking costs, with Driscoll's Meravilla costing around one-third less to harvest than Glen Ample.
On blueberries, Marston said: "There are opportunities in spring and autumn when supplies are limited and prices high. But consumers don't think to look for British-grown as with other berries. Retailers are lending their support but need quality and value." Again, large high-yielding newer varieties "will be important".
Cherries are continuing to "go through the same revolution" as strawberries did, said Brooks, with new varieties, rootstocks and polytunnels leading to substantial planting of new orchards, away from traditional Kent and Herefordshire heartlands.
"Cherries now have a longer season and are as reliable as strawberries," added Marston. On blackberries, he said: "We now have great availability of sweet-eating blackberries from March to September and are working with southern hemisphere growers for the rest of the season. The market has the potential to be 10 times the size it is now."
Twin packs with raspberries, sold through Waitrose, are part of encouraging customers to see sweet-eating blackberries as a dessert fruit rather than a cooking ingredient, he added.
Wages - Big concern
The Government's living wage plans (see p25) are "a huge concern among our members", said Berry Gardens' Alastair Brooks. "We have been striving ever since the national minimum wage came in to reduce our labour requirement by growing bigger fruit, using tabletop systems and bigger sprayers."
Managing director Nick Marston added: "It's a capital-intensive industry and Berry Gardens members will find it easier to invest. The 60 per cent of fruit still grown in the ground is at risk of being unprofitable."