Strawberry downturn hits sales

The sustained period of increasing strawberry production and consumption has come to a halt. The total market this year has been flat, with sales of premium varieties some 15% down on last year, and the situation seems unlikely to improve next year.

That was the somewhat gloomy picture painted by managing director Nick Marston of Berry Gardens. He said there was no doubt that the credit crunch has hit sales and, with costs escalating, it is becoming increasingly difficult for his group's 75 growers to make an acceptable return on capital.

"The return on growers' investment (in their businesses) is such that they are not going to plough money into any substantial expansion," he said. "They are very concerned about labour availability and that makes them nervous about expansion. Another worry is that labour will be harder to get next year than it was this year."

This season has not been easy for reasons other than consumers' reluctance to buy more strawberries than in the past, said Marston.

In early August there was a substantial rise in production due to everbearers coming into full cropping, he explained. This was exacerbated by the delay in the ripening of the Scottish 60-day crop. It is normally targeted at the second half of July but this season it was two weeks late.

"As a result, there was a year-on-year reduction in prices in the second and third weeks of August, and a 'two for' promotion across the high street didn't help," he recalled. "Given the way that growers' costs have gone we don't want to see any price deflation at all."

From late August onwards, however, supply and demand were fairly well balanced and so prices improved, he added.

To help counter rising costs, more and more growers have been investing in tabletops. These significantly reduce picking costs and the number of pickers required. They are very expensive, though, costing some £22,000 per 0.4ha including drip irrigation and peat or coir modules, although for producer organisation members a 50 per cent grant is available under the EC fruit and vegetable regime.

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