From experimenting with new planting systems for top-fruit crops to developing new strawberry varieties for the market, NIAB EMR (formerly East Malling Research) has a long-running tradition of working with the fresh produce industry. Happily, the Kent-based crop research centre is continuing this tradition through its new Variety and Novel Crop Trialling Service (VNCTS). Produce Business UK speaks to East Malling Services’ (EMS) business manager Marzena Lipska, who leads the service, to find out more
On the new-product trail
From traditionally imported fruits such as apricots and watermelons to quirky varieties such as kiwi berries or honeyberries, the past few years have seen many new fruits either being trialled or commercially produced in the UK. This trend – part of the fresh produce industry’s continuing drive to improve its existing product lines – has fortuitously created a need for NIAB-EMR’s VNCTS, which was launched in 2015. Lipska explains that this facility handily utilises NIAB-EMR’s pool of scientific and horticultural knowledge, which includes crop growth and development, pest and disease management, and genetic and variety trialling. She says: “Retailers, producer organisations (POs) and leading growers are using the unique package of scientific expertise and production capability to trial accurately and introduce new locally sourced crops and varieties to the UK consumer.” Whilst the details of the on-going trials remain confidential, Lipska divulges that the service is “being used to test many temperate fruit crops – including familiar strawberry, apple, cherry and raspberry crops, through to less familiar species.”
Trialling varieties that have been bred either here in the UK or as part of international breeding programmes, the service has attracted a wide range of customers from both Great Britain and abroad, reveals Lipska. She also notes that the reasons for its popularity include the fact that local sourcing has become more important over the past couple of years. “It has become a key part of the wider food-security agenda. Finding and growing new crops and/or varieties closer to the consumer may mean that we can deliver a better quality product that hasn’t been shipped too far.” Aside from its potential to help reduce the UK’s dependence on imports, Lipska observes that other benefits of the scheme include its capacity to boost fresh produce sales. As buyers know, introducing novel attributes such as quirky colours, tastes or textures helps to enthral consumers. Moreover, the introduction of new early- or late-fruiting varieties into producers’ growing schedules is helping to extend the season of some of the UK’s favourite fruits, such as strawberries. Given the UK’s burgeoning soft-fruit sales, this tactic – which is already being used by many British grower groups – is evidently a great way of generating new revenue opportunities for the sector.
Long-term vision and commitment
As well as generating new revenue streams and helping to secure the UK’s food supply, those who are using the new NIAB-EMR service are also displaying their commitment to British growers, says Lipska. She adds that, whilst some growers happily carry out variety trials on their own farms, there are notable advantages to conducting a trial on NIAB EMR’s property. Aside from its team’s knowledge pool, the crop research centre, which this spring became part of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) group, is able to run long-term trials on its own farmland – freeing up precious commercial growing space on producers’ farms. Lipska says: “Robust crop trialling can only be generated over a number of years, so customers are looking to EMS for long-term trialling capability. Some projects are three years but others are going beyond five to 10 years – this demonstrates the long-term vision and commitment being taken by [our] customers to supply the consumers of tomorrow. ”
She also points out that the meticulous recording of a crop’s performance is extremely difficult to replicate in industry, so the VNCTS ensures that all data are accurately recorded. As well as recording how well new crops perform on British soil, retailers, POs and growers are also able to use the service to generate “best practice” guidelines for certain varieties that are being grown in the UK for the first time. Given the myriad benefits of the service, it seems British consumers can look forward to enjoying many new home-grown fruits.
NIAB EMR is exhibiting at the The London Produce Show and Conference on June 8-10 at the Grosvenor House hotel.