UK soft fruit :
65% covered
with tunnels
Stuart Stubbins, until recently Senior Executive at Marks and Spencer where he worked for 34 years.

Part of my responsibilities whilst at Marks and Spencer was

Increase yields
30 to 35% improved class one yield

Growers success story
Produce earlier and later crops

Polythene reduces glare
Massively reduce the reflective glare

Government's viewpont
The proposal for a local code of practice on the use of polytunnels seems sensible and could, potentially, be a helpful initiative.
Customer viewpoint
We as consumers can have better British soft fruit for longer than ever before. We now can enjoy the pleasure of eating British berries for approx 26 weeks, as opposed to only 5-6 weeks of season, which was the conventional period of cropping 20 years ago.
in the fresh produce area and fruit in particular.This area also includes soft fruit i.e. berries – strawberries and raspberries and all the other related products. Over the years I have visited many, many growers and companies in the UK and around the world, as part of my job and have built up a detailed knowledge of the industry. A major part of my time was also spent analysing and researching what the consumer wants –for example, why she prefers product A as opposed product B etc.

I am now an independent consultant working with a number of companies in the food industry. I have been asked to give a summary of the perspectives from a retailer’s point of view and also to highlight what the consumer is really looking for.

This is a story of a part of British agriculture, which has changed dramatically and has made substantial improvements. Soft fruit is one of the few recent major areas of success in British agriculture. It’s a story of major change from the days of the ‘Darling Buds of May’ sentimental, TV portrayal of farmers and growers. Then the berry industry was small, fragmented, uncoordinated and starved of investment.

It is now a modern business with substantial investment in better quality products, rationalised and coordinated by grower owned marketing companies, supplying the consumer with a unique WORLD BEATING product.

British berries are unsurpassed in terms of their eating quality, flavour, succulence and aroma. And the British public love them - and come back each year demanding more and more. And in addition, berries are really good for us, – full of healthy vitamins and minerals.

Berries form part of the range of produce that the British Government is promoting in the ‘eat 5 portions’ of fruit and veg per day to improve the Nation’s health and lower obesity levels. This has encouraged growers to invest in new varieties, growing techniques and technology to meet the increasing demand.

This means that we as consumers can have better British soft fruit for longer than ever before. We now can enjoy the pleasure of eating British berries for approx 26 weeks, as opposed to only 5-6 weeks of season, which was the conventional period of cropping 20 years ago. The use of tunnels has enabled growers to meet this increase in demand and is essential to extending the season.

So what is the size of the berry business, where is it going?

The market figures
Total berry sales in the UK in 2003 were £310m and this year estimated to be £350m, rising to anticipated sales of £400m by 2006. Sales are progressing on average at plus 20% each year.
Strawberry sales last year were nearly £250m and are estimated to increase to £280m by 2006, sales growing by about plus 20%.

Raspberry sales last year were just about £50m and are going through an unprecedented period of success and are estimated to be in excess of £80m in 2 years time. Sales are growing by an average of 30-40% each year.

This is a tremendous story with 70% of these annual sales being grown here in the UK.
And here in Herefordshire berry growers account for about 20% of the UK market.

I estimate that over £25m, at farm gate prices, is returned to the local economy here in Herefordshire. And in recent years this county has assumed an increasingly important position in overall UK berry production.

But despite all this tremendous work - even during the height of the season of late May June and July, consumers want so much soft fruit that there are still hundreds and hundreds of tons imported from Holland , Belgium, Spain, France etc to meet demand.

At the peak of sales availability of UK produced berries is still only 80- 85% of the overall demand. Growers have responded to these challenges and one of the techniques is to grow the crops under polytunnels. This is for a longer season, improving yields, quality and availability.

This is not about just putting an umbrella over the crops to keep the rain off – but an essential and vital part of the production process. And I also note that in fictional Ambridge of the Archers that Adam Aldridge has been covering his strawberries with polytunnels and getting support from the village.

So why use polytunnels?
The growers customers who are the retailers now virtually demand it. Growers are advised by retailers that – ‘ no tunnels – no contract or orders for fruit will be given’.

And why is that?
This is about continuity of supply during difficult weather. It is about confidence and reliability of supply for retailers operating 7 days a week with extended opening hours. It is about quality, eating quality and appearance, which are significantly better under tunnel – and shelf life too.

There are significantly fewer fruit disease and other related quality problems with fruit grown in this way.

Put simply this method of production gives the retailers the confidence to BUY BRITISH and not to pick up the phone and order more imports from our near neighbours.

But at the end of the day it is YOU the ultimate customer who is driving the need for more and more soft fruit from our growers.The consumer wants British fruit over a longer period than ever before.

  • She wants the product more often and in bigger quantities and the use of polytunnels has improved yields by some 30% since 1995/96.
  • She wants better quality, improved appearance of the fruit, eating quality and flavour.
  • She does not want problems with the fruit such as mould, disease etc
  • She has more confidence in British grown fruit than from elsewhere and needs to be reassured about the growing enquiry about fungicides and pesticides. Using polytunnel techniques reduces the need for fungicides and pesticides treatments.

And looking to the future developing markets such as organic, - organic berries could not be grown successfully without the use of polytunnels.

Additionally the consumer wants to buy them when she wants them and not see empty shelves in the supermarkets or shelves full of imported products – just because the growers here in the UK have had to put up with some rainy / bad weather days. Added to this she wants to buy them in the big supermarkets where she does her regular shop – not in a muddy /wet PYO.

The supermarkets have increased their market share of berries from 69% to nearly 90% in the last 10 years.

So finally – British berries are a tremendous success – the consumer loves them and wants more and more. Growing berries under tunnels is crucial to the future of the industry and is now a fundamental and vital part of the growing process.

The industry has invested substantially in this style of technique to protect and develop what is a unique and amazing and truly WORLD BEATING product.

© Copyright 2004 TunnelFacts