Wallings Nursery scooped a Farming Innovation Award at last month's Sainsbury's Farming Conference (6 December) for its work with Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) on using supplementary LEDs to extend the strawberry season.
Four different lighting combinations have been in use at the Essex grower, part of the Fresca Group, to continue the strawberry harvest through to December by recreating spring lighting conditions under glass.
Normally the 3ha protected grower has to throw away 15-30 tonnes of unripened late-season berries, but the supplementary lighting is capable of yielding a further £100,000 worth of marketable fruit.
Presenting the award, Sainsbury's commercial director Mike Coupe said: "It was inconceivable even five years ago that we could supply British strawberries all year round."
Wallings managing director Chris Batchelor told Grower: "We have just tested the fruit and found Brix levels one per cent higher than normal. That may not sound much but a customer like Sainsbury's will want seven per cent Brix and out of season you might struggle to get above five or six."
He added: "In December the plants are also creating flowers for next year, so the extra lighting also gives them more 'fuel' to do this." But he cautioned: "The cost of the lighting is still prohibitive from the commercial point of view."
STC science director Martin McPherson added: "We are close but still need to get a better handle on the capital and running costs."
The project was one of 14 to be awarded grants totalling £1m at Sainsbury's previous farming conference. Nine new projects, including four in horticulture, were awarded a further £1m in grants last month.
LEDs 4 Crops - Research to be stepped up
Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) is ready to take its "LEDs 4 Crops" research station to the next level, according to science director Martin McPherson.
"The potential is phenomenal. We need commercial partners to invest in a fully automatic showcase for what's feasible in a commercial situation," he said.
"You could have 10 shelves, giving you 10 times the growing space per hectare, with each being moved automatically until it comes out the other end."
STC photobiologist Dr Phillip Davis added: "We can grow the same crop under different light recipes depending on what growers and customers want."