On November 21, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) will host a conference in collaboration with the EMR Association — the knowledge transfer organisation of East Malling Research — to reveal the latest results of their funded research on soft fruit. Constituting 16 presentations in total, particularly looking at pest and disease control, with a strong focus on a recent pest to enter the UK, spotted wing drosophila (SWD), the day will also share knowledge about water and nutrient management, the latest findings on rose thrips, as well as highlighting key tested innovations, such as how to optimize attractants and repellents, and how to improve mildew management in strawberry crops.
Produce Business UK chatted with Scott Raffle, Knowledge Exchange Manager for Soft Fruit for AHDB, to understand the role of AHDB, some of the most pressing issues facing growers in the soft fruit sector in the UK, as well as some of the board’s projects and focuses for the future.
The role of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)
AHDB is a statutory levy body set up to fund research and development in the agricultural and horticultural industries, and then to communicate the results to growers. Raffle, whose role is to disseminate the fruit research findings to the industry at large, says the AHDB was established in 2008 as a result of amalgamating the previous individual agricultural and horticultural levy bodies, such as the Dairy Group, The British Potato Council, among others, into one.
“We collect the statutory levy [0.5 per cent on annual turnover of £60,000 or above] every year from all the different farmers and growers," Raffie says. "We then create budgets for each of the horticultural sectors, including field vegetables, soft fruit, tree fruit, protected edibles and mushrooms protected ornamentals and hardy nursery stock. For each sector there is a panel made up of elected levy payers from that sector and advisory members, who develop and up-date a research strategy each year. Based on that research strategy we then commission research projects to meet the research needs of that sector."
The AHDB and its horticultural predecessor, the HDC, have funded work covering numerous ‘problem-solving’ technical aspects of horticultural production, as well as focusing on developments that are part of more fundamental research.
To make sure that the research and development is relevant and helpful to the needs of the industry, AHDB prioritizes in positioning growers and farmers as vital voices. They set the research priorities in each of the crop sectors, as well as in the decision-making process for individual research projects.
The findings of the research are then disseminated through industry events, the publication of fact sheets, reports, grower guides, training videos, wall charts, software programmes and its magazine, the AHDB Grower, the technical journal for industry.
The soft fruit sector at large
The UK soft fruit sector — which covers all commercial soft fruit crops grown in the UK including strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, blueberries and all other ribes and rubus species — is growing considerably, almost doubling in turnover over the past five years and now accounting for around 18 per cent of the annual levy income.
According to Defra, the actual consumption of strawberries and raspberries has risen by 150 per cent and 123 per cent, respectively, between 1996 and 2015. What’s more, the UK soft fruit purchases now account for 22 per cent of all consumer fruit purchases, according to primary market researcher Kantar Worldpanel. Volumes have also continued to climb, with the market value of soft fruit grown in the United Kingdom worth £465 million in 2016, and reaching £670 million in 2018, according to Defra’s agricultural report.
AHDB’s research implemented into market growth
AHDB is built on the premise that commercial horticulture needs continued investment in applied research and knowledge transfer in order to respond to the increasing challenges of the marketplace. To that effect, one of the board’s main jobs is to translate the research into practical techniques that can be used commercially.
Its goal is to help British horticulture become more efficient, competitive and sustainable by providing growers with the knowledge and technological capability they need to continue improving production systems. This involves funding research, capturing the results of research funded by others, and translating all the knowledge acquired into best practice recommendations that growers can apply.
For example, by improving fruit presentation to pickers, it can increase yields and reduce labour costs. Furthermore, with the sector rising considerably, increasing horticultural production can lead to creating jobs, reducing imports, as well as helping improve people’s diets.
This year’s research focus
Raffle says the three main areas of research focus this year have been crop protection, water and nutrient management, and breeding.
“We spend over 50 per cent of the total budget on crop protection," he says. "We also do a lot of genetic work and breeding. We fund two breeding programs: The first is the East Malling Strawberry Breeding Club based in Kent, and the other is the UK Raspberry Breeding Program based at The James Hutton Institute in Dundee.”
In terms of crop protection, AHDB has introduced the SCEPTREplus programme, designed to assess the capacity of new or emerging crop protection products. It has worked with applied scientists, manufacturers, suppliers, consultants and growers to protect horticultural crops against diseases, pests and weeds that are decreasingly reliant on plant protection products.
“Crop protection research is something that growers can’t really do for themselves. They would have to employ research scientists to do that work for them. They see that as a good role for us. In terms of new pests of soft and stone fruit in the UK, we have funded a lot on spotted wing drosophila (SWD). We developed some useful guidance for growers on how to manage and control this, so that is working well at the moment.” Raffle explains.
One of the premises of the AHDB programme is to minimise the impact of losses of plant protection products and to provide alternative solutions for UK growers. As well as collaborating with agrochemical and biopesticide companies to identify new products, the AHDB also submits applications on behalf of the industry for Extensions of authorisations for minor uses (EAMUs) of existing products.
“One of the challenges for growers is that the number of crop-protection products that are available to control pest diseases has diminished and continues to decline in number.
"Some of them are not reapproved when they need to get reevaluated. And this is not just in the UK, but this is across the whole of Europe. The EC commission evaluates the crop protection products regularly, and we have continued to lose products over the years. So the industry has had to adapt, and we have helped them to adapt by finding novel approaches to control pests and diseases. For example, the industry has developed the use of a range of predatory mites to introduce to a crop to control various mite and other pests that are damaging the crop. So we are not using traditional crop protection products, we are using alternatives. Growers will continue to receive EAMU notifications as they become authorised and we have introduced a new monthly crop protection email newsletter, sharing industry developments."
To that effect, over the past 20 years, soft fruit growers have increasingly relied on introduced predatory mites to control pests, such as two-spotted spider mite, western flower thrips and tarsonemid mite.
High on this year’s agenda and a large percentage of the presentations in the upcoming conference will focus on how to deal with the recent pest “spotted wing drosophila” (SWD). This fruit fly originated in Japan and has spread across the world, first to the USA, then mainland Europe, before first being detected in the United Kingdom in 2012 at NIAB EMR in Kent. It is an invasive pest of soft and stone fruit crops and if left uncontrolled, can result in significant crop loss. Unlike the common fruit fly found in the UK (Drosophila melanogaster), which is only attracted to ripe and overripe fruits, the spotted wing drosophila (SWD) is attracted to under ripe fruits and finds its way into fruit crops both before and during the harvesting period.
AHDB has been funding research into spotted wing drosophila (SWD) since 2013 through various projects, including Project SF 145 and Project SF/TF 145a, with the project’s aim to further develop knowledge of the pest’s distribution across the UK and its preferred habitats. One current objective of the AHDB research is to develop a ‘push/pull’ system using repellents and ‘attract and kill’ techniques that will form part of a holistic control strategy for growers.
Raffle says: “The ‘attract and kill’ type technology under development employs a lure to attract the pest into a closed container where the insect picks up a crop-protection product and dies, and this reduces the need to use traditional spray products for control. We are also looking into the use of scent repellents, something that has a scent in it that repels the insect from going anywhere near the crop in the first place.”
When asked about any other technological advances that can benefit the crop, Raffle says: “We will be investigating a fine mesh to keep the pest out of the crop next year. We are also looking at bait sprays. What that means is that we are looking at various attractants like yeast and strawberry juice, which are known to attract SWD. Now when you add these to control products, they can potentially improve the effectiveness of the control products because they are actually attracting the pest to feed on the product.
"In theory, if you were to add such an attractant as a bait to a control product and spray it on part of the crop which is not fruiting – the base or raspberry canes for instance, that would attract the insect pest to feed on it, and we are getting better results and control on that than if we sprayed a product across the whole crop. So it is preventing us from spraying the whole crop and also getting a better more effective kill of the insect. That’s not something that has been used commercially yet but it is a novel way of dealing with the pest."
Aside from research on SWD which has been a key priority for AHDB, the board also continues to fund other crop-protection research, through yearly programs on strawberry pests, strawberry diseases and cane fruit pests and diseases. These programs allow it to continue researching solutions to problems, such as western flower thrips, aphids, powdery mildew, strawberry crown rot, Verticillium wilt and raspberry root rot.
Water and nutrition management in soft fruit
Also high on the research agenda has been the use of water and nutrition to grow crops. “We have investigated ways to grow strawberries and raspberries using less water and nutrients to see if we can improve the water use efficiency of the crop," Raffies says. "Given that water may become a more reduced resource in the future possibly, or rather a scarcer resource if you want to put it that way. We have funded projects to see if we can produce strawberries using less water, for example, growing strawberries with less than 33 per cent water and still producing the same yield of strawberries.”
In terms of whether the research is being implemented by the industry, Raffle explains that “although we have done the research, the industry has not adopted that quickly. NIAB EMR, who undertook the work on our behalf have recently set up a commercial demonstration site – the Wet Centre – to show growers that they can improve the precision of their irrigation and reduce their inputs without adverse effects on fruit yield or quality. The good news is that a number of growers are now adopting this because they have seen it demonstrated. Nobody was using this technology 2-3 years ago, and now a significant number of growers have adopted it.”
AHDB’s research, innovation and consequent sales
When discussing whether the crop-protection technology helps to increase yields of the fruits, Raffle explains, “Class 1 fruit is what is crucial for growers. The prices of produce remains static; they might have gone up a tiny bit, but haven’t gone up in line of inflation or the cost of living. So in order for growers to survive, they have had to grow their crop more effectively. They have to produce a higher percentage of Class 1 fruit. They can’t sell Class 2 fruit. Class 2 fruit is usually misshapen. If they can get close to 100 per cent of their strawberries as Class 1 fruit, so that supermarkets can buy that, then obviously they can improve their returns. If they get only 60- 70 per cent Class 1 fruit, then they are out of business. So our work has helped them to improve the Class 1 fruit.”
The role of AHDB in reducing food waste
Soft fruit is particularly prone to wastage, with a recent survey by WRAP, a government advisory body, estimating that 1 in 10 UK strawberries end up as waste.
AHDB’s research findings have correlated directly in terms of reducing waste of soft fruit. By harnessing the growers ability to cultivate more Class 1 fruit that is at the same time supermarket sellable, means that there is less waste as a whole.
“We helped to fund the new development of strawberry varieties which have got higher percentage of Class 1 fruit, and less waste which helps the environment as well," Raffie says. "For instance, the strawberry industry relied heavily on the June-bearing variety, Elsanta, for over 30 years to supply all of the major retail markets because of its high-fruit quality, but it tended to produce a significant volume of Class 2 fruit (small and misshapen berries). It was not uncommon for growers to lose 25-30 per cent of the berries produced as they were unsellable. The East Malling Strawberry Breeding Club has recently bred a new variety ‘Malling Centenary’ that has been adopted widely by UK growers as it produces over 90 per cent Class 1 fruit, so that now less than 10 percent of the fruit is discarded.”
Effective control of pests and diseases also results in a direct increase in the volume of Class 1 fruit, which in turn, means a reduction in waste.
UK growers have responded accordingly by increasing land area dedicated to growing soft fruit, which has grown by 30 per cent over the past decade, according to Defra.
AHDB looking into the future
Improving labour efficiency and the reduction of labour costs are both high on the agency's agenda, according to Raffie
With rising costs and uncertainty about future access to labour, AHDB Horticulture have started a programme of knowledge exchange activity to help businesses deal with the labour challenge through improving management practices and supporting skills development.
“SmartHort” programme, created in light of labour shortages, is a free two-day conference dedicated to driving innovation into horticulture, where guest speakers from around the world will share some technological developments, especially examining the potential of such technologies in light of current labour shortages. The next conference will be held in March 2019.
Another key area of focus in the SmartHort programme has been to improve management skills for frontline supervisors as a way to increase labour efficiency. As a result, SmartHort workshops have been held across the UK, with more than 40 horticultural businesses attending. There will be eight workshops taking place around the UK from November 2018.
For the latest in AHDB’s work, watch this space for the findings revealed in the upcoming conference for soft fruit, in collaboration with the EMR Association to be held November 21 in the UK.