The British soft fruit industry could see a double-digit increase in production this year, but challenges of labour, pesticides, Brexit and the weather persist.
British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins told Horticulture Week: "The industry is responding to consumers' desire for more fruit - growers are not planting willy-nilly. We will see an 11 per cent rise in volume this season if all goes well."
Even this rise may not entirely meet growing demand, which he estimated at 12 per cent per year for strawberries and a remarkable 25-30 per cent for other soft fruit. "The number of times people use soft fruits is increasing," he said. "We will concentrate on weekday lunchtimes this season, but there's also snacks, breakfast, smoothies, all of which have contributed to the growth in demand."
The health benefits of berries "are already well understood - we get so much free publicity from the messages about balanced diets and the need to eat five-a-day", he added. "They are also ideal for small children."
This ongoing rise in production is being achieved by growing on a bigger area but also more efficiently, he explained. "The industry is moving to more intensive tabletop systems, which make feeding and picking easier - that's now 40-50 per cent of the industry."
Meanwhile, the increasing cost of harvesting is spurring on the breeding of new, larger-fruited varieties such as Malling Centenary, he said. "Labour is around 45 per cent of growers' overall costs, and every increase in the National Living Wage will put 5 per cent on that bill. There is only so much you can do in terms of efficiency. The last thing we want is to push for higher prices, though we may have to. Grapes are incredibly cheap right now."
The EU referendum later this month adds to these concerns, he said. "Some of us are quite vocal about the Brexit issue - we are totally dependent on EU labour. We're talking 50-60,000 people in all crops. As the season becomes longer we are needing them nine months a year, even offering full-time positions, but still we can't attract workers from the UK. Would the government really allow a successful industry to go down the pan? The British consumer can't have it both ways. They want locally produced food and right now we have no imported strawberries for six months. But after Brexit the pound will be weaker and so imported fruit will be more expensive."
Meanwhile, "the loss of key pesticides is also a worry", he said, adding of the current season: "We are two weeks behind last year, and volumes of strawberries are around 10 per cent below estimates, due to the cold nights and days, which don't help demand either - though you don't then want the warm weather all in a heap."
The facts - Soft fruits in numbers
? 74,000 tonnes of strawberries expected to be grown this summer – an increase of 11 per cent on last year.
? Strawberry sales total £564 million and represent 51 percent of the total soft fruit sales, forecast this year at £1.1bn.
? Berry sales now account for 21 per cent of total
UK fruit consumption, making them the largest fresh fruit category.
? Consumption of berries has grown by an 132 percent in a decade.
Source: British Summer Fruits