Photo courtesy of Angus Soft Fruits/British Berry Growers

Angus Soft Fruits leader talks innovation and challenges in berry sector

Fresh Fruit Portal

In this interview done with Fresh Fruit Portal during Fruit Logistica, Sarah Ilyas spoke with Jill Witheyman, Head of Marketing at Angus Soft Fruits.

What is Angus Soft Fruits all about? 

We are a Scottish company based on the northeast coast of Scotland, celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. Angus Soft Fruits is a family business founded by three growers with a vision to directly supply retailers, bypassing intermediaries.

Our growers, including the founding members, have a multi-generational background in berry cultivation. We specialize in breeding, growing, and supplying berries worldwide, including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. While our primary market has traditionally been UK retailers, we now also cater to retail, wholesale, and food service sectors across mainland Europe, as well as exporting to the Middle East and Asia.

How do you boost local consumption?

A few years ago, our Scottish growers heavily invested in blueberry production. Recouping costs was challenging for them. Therefore, we aimed to raise awareness among local consumers about the Scottish origin of the blueberries. Many consumers may not have realized this when purchasing them in stores due to the lack of prominent signage. With a modest budget of £500 (pounds), we effectively communicated this message.

The results were remarkable, earning us the Best Marketing Award from the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC). Despite competing against campaigns with multi-million-pound budgets, our campaign stood out due to its effectiveness. One strategy we employed was reaching out to local influencers, such as a personal trainer who advocated for health and fitness. We provided her with our berries and asked for recommendations on incorporating them into diets and recipes.

This resulted in positive endorsements to her client base, proving to be a cost-effective approach. Additionally, we collaborated with a local gin producer to create gin infused with our blueberries, with our logo featured on the label. This collaboration extended our reach to their customer base.

Similarly, we partnered with a local baker and explored other creative avenues, we crafted humorous digital ads spotlighting the Scottish heritage of our products, seizing attention by playfully juxtaposing them with quintessentially Scottish symbols like haggis and whiskey. The highlight? The revelation that our berries, too, hail from Scotland, sparked remarkable engagement among our audience.

How does Angus Soft Fruits use data? 

There is a vast amount of data in various formats, necessitating a high level of organizational effort to aggregate it. This enables us to determine which varieties should progress to the advanced stage of production and ultimately commercialization.

To achieve this, we have a large team of agronomists and technologists who continually gather data on crop performance, including yield, pest and disease management. Additionally, we collect sales data to gain insights into market trends and consumer preferences across different regions.

Understanding these preferences allows us to tailor our products to meet customer demand, taking into account factors such as sweetness, shape, size and color, which may vary significantly among different customers, countries, and demographics.

What challenges is the berry sector facing? 

Well, it’s certainly a trying period for the berry industry worldwide. Here in the UK, we’re grappling with several challenges, primarily escalating costs. Labour expenses, in particular, weigh heavily on berry production due to the labor-intensive nature of handpicking, constituting approximately 50% of our output costs.

As wage rates continue to rise, this disparity becomes more pronounced compared to crops with lower labor requirements. Additionally, inflation and the prevailing cost of living crisis compound our challenges.

While our resilience remains steadfast, many growers are feeling the strain, with diminishing returns exacerbating the situation. This is a significant message that we are trying to reiterate and get across to consumers, retailers and to the government. 

Are there any advancements or innovations that you’re currently working towards?

We’ve made significant strides over the past three decades, but we’re eagerly anticipating the next chapter in our journey. This year marks the commercial launch of two highly anticipated raspberry varieties: AVA Monet and AVA Dali.

These raspberries are truly works of art, boasting unparalleled flavor and quality. These cultivars have already won approval from several major UK retailers and we’ll be showcasing them at Fruit Attraction. While Scottish climate constraints limit year-round production, these varieties have been meticulously bred to thrive in different regions, ensuring availability 52 weeks a year without compromising on taste or appearance.

This is what excites us most. Additionally, we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary, marking another milestone in our journey of innovation and excellence.



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