As little as a decade ago British strawberries were a much-savoured, summertime treat to be devoured at a picnic on a sunny day. But as UK growers strengthen their production techniques, this favourite fruit is now appearing on supermarket shelves at the start of spring. Produce Business UK examines whether or not fresh produce buyers should embrace this change in tradition
On your marks…
Many are likely to have childhood memories of biting into a strawberry after participating in a summertime game, such as cricket on the village green or the egg and spoon race at school sports day. Now it appears the UK retailers are also enjoying some friendly competition as they boast about the early arrival of their first batch of British strawberries.
Waitrose recently laid claim to launching on March 4 (2016) the first home-grown strawberries – produced by Chichester-based grower Harry Hall of Hall Hunter Farm. Around the same time, Tesco revealed that Kent-produced strawberries went on sale in its supermarkets four days earlier than last year on March 2; describing this achievement as a “coup”.
Thanks to early-yielding varieties and state-of-the-art production techniques, such biomass boilers and LED lights, the retailers explained that the traditional British strawberry season can now last for up to nine months.
Enjoying home-grown fruit for longer
Growers and their marketing companies are confidently investing in producing strawberries for a significantly longer period than the traditional season, which runs from May until September. But what are their reasons for doing so?
Janine Hatfield, a representative for Berry Gardens Growers, explains: “Growers’ first British strawberries were delivered in stores on March 9 this year – a similar date to last year. The main advantage of bringing the British season forward is that customers can enjoy the quality of home-grown fruit for longer.
“The UK season now extends from March until November with strawberries becoming a staple of the UK household and a regular on their shopping list. An extended UK season also has the benefit of reducing the food miles of imported fruit, as well as providing ongoing employment.”
Chief executive of the British Growers Association, Jack Ward, agrees that if the UK doesn’t supply strawberries then buyers would simply have to source from abroad, pointing out: “If UK producers were not doing it, we would just be importing the product anyway.”
Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, adds that British growers are essentially meeting the demand that’s coming from supermarkets. He says: “There’s only a very small demand for British strawberries from March onwards, and UK growers feel that that demand should be met.
“Figures show that we are 50% up on last year to date – just on the glasshouse volume, which is quite significant. And six different supermarkets are selling them this year already. Clearly, they want to stock it.”
Quality is driving consumption
The UK now produces about 10% of its strawberry crop under glass, according to Olins. He says glasshouses have become increasingly available in the UK because they were previously used to grow other crops that proved to be less economically viable. Thanks to state-of-the-art production techniques, the quality of the produce is not compromised either.
Ward concurs that quality is definitely on offer from the early crop, which is positive news for sales and consumption. “I think what the berry industry has done is fantastic,” he says. “They’ve taken a product that was only available for a few weeks of the year, around Wimbledon, and made it available for a much longer period.
“And thanks to the quality and quantity the growers are producing, berry consumption is continuing to escalate year on year. They’ve turned berry growing into a highly technologically sophisticated operation; extending the season either side of those few weeks in summer.”
Too much of a good thing?
From our favourite fruit to our favourite television drama, the modern day “on demand” culture means few of us are willing to sit around patiently and wait for our indulgences to be satisfied. As such, the retailers are driven to give consumers what they want. But are they in danger of wearing off the novelty of this much-loved product?
Berry Gardens Growers thinks not. “We do not see customers becoming bored with British strawberries,” states Hatfield. “The latest Kantar data for the 52 weeks to the end of February 2016 show that strawberries have grown 11% in volume, with penetration increasing to 77.6% and the frequency of purchase rising to 13 times a year, compared with 12 times a year last year.
“In addition, we are seeing British consumers switching from the more traditional fruit bowl selection of apples and bananas to strawberries and other berries as a healthy snacking alternative.”
Overall, the UK berry category is now valued at over £1 billion with Hatfield noting there are “no signs” of it slowing down. Perhaps then – when it comes to strawberries at least – there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing?
Ward seems to think so. He says: “I don’t think the novelty will wear off. I don’t think that it’s a problem at all because consumers’ eating habits are constantly changing. It’s easy to forget just how different our diets were 30 or 40 years ago. It’s easy to be sentimental but consumers are actually continually looking for something new and exciting to eat.”
Olins also asserts that consumers’ wants and needs have changed. He explains: “What was true a generation ago is certainly not true with new consumers, otherwise we would not be selling the quality and the tonnage of strawberries that we do in the UK now. We are selling an ever-increasing amount so that seasonality issue is disappearing.”
Evidently, the UK’s fondness for this fruit means the arrival of British strawberries at springtime is not a passing fad – and fresh produce buyers would no doubt benefit from incorporating this berry into their springtime and Easter promotions.