Fruit Focus 2021: 10 highlights UPDATED

July 2021's Fruit Focus event at NIAB EMR in East Malling, Kent, brought much of the fruit-growing industry together for the first time in almost two years.

Lee Abbey, Ali Capper, Keith Johnson, Simon Bower at Fruit Focus 2021 - credit: HW
Lee Abbey, Ali Capper, Keith Johnson, Simon Bower at Fruit Focus 2021 - credit: HW
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1. Labour supply

Securing sufficient labour through 2021 and beyond was the keynote seminar. With recruitment more challenging than ever, NFU horticulture board chair Ali Capper and Simon Bower from Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) operator Concordia spoke on what is being done to mitigate issues in 2021 and to secure long-term solutions.

Capper said there are "appalling statistics" to share. June saw a 20% shortfall in labour, with a 10% year-to-date shortage. Daffodils had a 33% shortage and 24% crop loss — 245 million stems.

The average hourly wage of £10.35 is not the problem, she insisted. Some 36% of businesses lost crops. Only 9% of the workforce are UK nationals.

The NFU is starting to hear about businesses giving up and the sector is "on the brink of disaster if we don't sort this situation out". Some growers will move production offshore or reduce output, Capper warned, adding that Defra needs to make moves soon.

The appointment of AG and Fruitful this April/May to add to Proforce and Concordia as SWP operators was too late, she said. This may be the first year the sector has not seen growth. The Government will only act if supermarket shelves are empty, not if there are lost crops or business failures.

Capper said the 30,000-place SWP needs to be permanent, year-round, with more operators and permits. The system also needs to be "slicker" and ornamentals need to be included. UK immigration policy is "not fit for purpose". A report is going into Defra in August on the impact of staff shortages on the food and drink sector.

Bower said £245 visa costs are too high (plus £55 for Bulgaria and Romania). Without this year's 30,000 licences UK farmers would be in trouble, he added, but Concordia's licences ran out last week ahead of peak season, though workers now in the UK can be moved around.

Local Department for Work & Pensions representative Keith Johnson said job centres can help growers find UK workers.

2. Productivity

The horticulture productivity challenge is another big issue tackled at the NFU Fruit Forum at Fruit Focus. Against a backdrop of evolving farm policy, including the expected ending of the producer organisation scheme, and a backlog of crop-protection authorisations, how can the UK horticulture sector continue to drive productivity and remain globally competitive? Speakers from Defra, the NFU and growing explored the opportunities and challenges.

Capper said the sector gives 20% of farming value from just 1% of land.

Hugh Lowe Farms managing director Marion Regan said better strawberry genetics are helping to cut grade-outs. Top pickers can collect up to 100kg an hour, but they need to be experienced returnees. Her productivity "asks" are good genetics, returnee pickers, flexible lengths of stay, a flexible producer organisation scheme, tax breaks for innovation and long-term relations with customers.

3. Producer organisations

Producer organisations are relieved at avoiding a funding gap, according to the NFU. Defra's Jackie Rawlings said the current EU scheme closes in 2022 and transitional arrangements are now in place to carry over producer organisations to the start of the UK scheme in 2025 that will offer support through priority productivity, sustainability and research and development as well as giving less for administration.

The maximum assistance a producer organisation can claim remains limited to 4.1% of the value of its marketed production. Capper said £150m is needed rather than the current £30m-£40m.

4. Research grants

Research, innovation and enterprise cluster Growing Kent & Medway announced £3m in R&D grants for projects that support inclusive economic growth and environmentally sustainable practices and innovations.

5. Success stories

The industry is seeing success. Production values increased in 2020, according to latest Defra figures. Home-produced fruit has grown in value to £1bn, an increase of 16% compared with 2019, with production volumes falling 4.5% to 657,000 tonnes.

6. Robotics

Berry Gardens Growers and the University of Lincoln partnered to bring a demonstration of collaborative SAGA Thorvald robots, providing logistics services for tabletop strawberries.

Professor Marc Hanheide showcased the "Robot Highways" research project, Penny UK displayed gutter-lifting technology from J Hwete designed for strawberry growers and Autonomous Spray chief executive officer Rob Pearson showed its robotic spray system vehicle (see HortWeek videos on hortweek.com next week).

7. AHDB

Hugh Lowe Farms' Marion Regan and the NFU's Ali Capper said Defra needs to give clarity on future pre-competitive market joint R&D. This has been delayed — it was due in June — and will probably not now happen until after the parliamentary recess.

The Growers Better Levy Board now has 36 businesses involved and is lobbying for a new scheme. AHDB Horticulture ends in March 2022 after growers voted earlier this year to cease its operations. 

AHDB will make £7.8m of reductions from its annual staff and overheads budget of £29m as part of plans to reduce operational costs and improve efficiency over the next two years as part of its 2021-26 Strategy. A £6m reduction in spend is because of the ending of the work of the horticulture and potato operations. Overall, senior managers numbers fall by 30%, from 20 to 14. Space at AHDB’s Stoneleigh HQ in Warwickshire is to be sublet.

8. Net zero

Net zero was also a big issue at the show (see a report on Haygrove chair Angus Davison on hortweek.com next week).

9. Industry developments

Elsoms has entered the soft-fruit sector with three new everbearing strawberry varieties from Dutch breeder ABZ Seeds. The two companies have signed an exclusive distribution agreement that will see Elsoms market Soraya, Estavana and Rowena in the UK. Ball is supplying plants to UK growers.

10. Crop protection

The NFU's Chris Hartfield said crop protection is a major factor in meeting the productivity challenge. Integrated pest management is a big part of the 25-year environment plan. The Chemicals Regulation Division uses science-based evidence and needs to be stronger again after years of EU precautionary principle policy, he added.

Defra promoted its Farming is Changing booklet, covering new environmental land management schemes and funding.

Berry Gardens is set to save 133 tonnes of plastic as a result of new packaging initiatives adopted to help reduce the business’ reliance on plastic. Berry Gardens is working with Sharpak Aylesham, a subsidiary of Group Guillin, which saw the launch of SP AirLite, a range of recyclable strawberry punnets with a protected design which mitigates the need for bubble pads, reducing the plastic weight featured in core punnets. 

Sales of  premium strawberries have grown by +28%  year to date, with Berry Gardens’ sales increasing by +50% YTD.  In 2020, Berry Gardens sold over 1,171 tonnes of premium strawberries, compared to 1,767 tonnes in 2021 YTD, resulting in share gain of +8% Pts; from 45% to 53% across the category. The company also hired Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill as an ambassador this year.

NIAB EMR has launched ‘Malling Fruits’, a brand to promote the portfolio of top, soft and stone fruit varieties bred at the East Malling site in Kent.

Berryworld has a new focus on three areas: emissions and resources; biodiversity and wildlife; and water sustainability. BerryWorld UK is working towards achieving net zero emissions by 2040 and, within its own operations, have achieved a 20% reduction since 2016.

Frank P Matthews' Nick Dunn said 2022 looks set fair for fruit plant suppliers to gardeners because of the macro-economic forecast: "I think it will revolve around the real economy. The fruit industry is in a good position because homegrown should strengthen. The price of food is going up and inflation is coming. We are increasing production but we can't get enough labour. We have to be very careful - there are constraints around expansion such as labour and supplies of raw materials."


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