UK soft fruit :
65% covered
with tunnels
Anthony Snell, Fruit Grower, Herefordshire and Chairman of the West Midlands Horticultural Board for the N.F.U.

My family has been farming in Herefordshire for over three

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.
generations. We have grown most crops successfully and unsuccessfully and have seen many changes over the years. Although we still grow other crops, soft fruit (raspberries and strawberries) are by far our most important part of our rotation, and multi-bay tunnels have been vital in the development of our business. We would be classed as a medium sized grower.

Soft fruit production is market led and unsubsidised. We market our fruit through a co-operative of about 70 growers and are very proud of what we have achieved.
Basically these simple tunnel structures have enabled us to achieve several things.
  1. Produce earlier and later crops, reducing imports and spreads fixed costs.
  2. Provide continuity of employment for full time and part times staff. We can pick in the rain and the season is longer.
  3. Most important! – Produce in a more environmentally friendly way.

I want to briefly use our business (family) to illustrate the main benefits we provide to Herefordshire in the areas of (1) The Environment, (2) The Economy (3) Tourism.
As you have might have heard heard, strawberries and raspberries are incredibly good for you as well as being very tasty. In Herefordshire our rich soils give some of the best flavoured berries in Britain. Some key points:

1) The Environment

  • We now use 50% less Botrytis fungicides compared to when we were in open field production
  • Tunnels create an ideal environment for beneficial insects to work.
  • We use significantly less water through the usage of trickle irrigation. Additionally we are able to provide controlled amounts of plant food directed where needed and the sprinkle irrigation means we get less run-off and erosion.
  • In terms of polythene – all is recycled, which is way ahead of the rest of Agriculture and many other industries.
  • Perfect for Organics – only which can be produced in tunnels

2) The Economy

  • Employment – we have 5 times as many full time local employees as we did seven years ago. We have more with a new fruit-packing house planned for 2005.
  • In 2003 our medium sized business has invested over £1m in purchases of items and services such as irrigation, packaging, vehicles, crop feeds etc. Most of this has been spent with local businesses. Even our tunnels are manufactured in Herefordshire!
  • We estimate that our seasonal labour force of mainly Eastern European University students will have invested 50% of their income into the retail and tourism industries in Herefordshire. That is a further £250,000. Remember, they have no recourse to public funds!
  • Please be reassured these are well paid, hard working University students in the UK on a short term seasonal work permit and not illegal immigrants!

3) Tourism

  • On top of what I have just described in 2003, we paid one local coach company over £7,000 to take students on tourist visits throughout Herefordshire and Britain. We estimate the students will have spent a minimum of another £14,000 on these trips directly benefiting the Tourist Industry.
  • There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that tourists will not come to Herefordshire because of the use of tunnels
  • It does not stop the English going to S.E. Spain (where tunnels originated). There are thousands of acres there!

Over the last couple of years I have been fortunate to look at soft fruit production in the U.S.A., Mexico and Egypt. In Florida’s ‘Plant City’ they hold a hugely successful annual ‘Strawberry Festival’ that attracts many thousands of tourists.

Perhaps there is a message there for our local Hereford Tourist Board. Rather than worrying about a perceived problem, why not work with us growers to promote strawberries in a similar way? Add a strawberry to the traditional picture of Herefordshire cattle, cider and hops. Growers already supply most of Herefordshire’s Church Fetes with free local strawberries!

Temporary Structures

I am concerned by recent comments by our local M.P. suggesting temporary could easily become permanent – simply not true. Paul Keetch has made no effort to fully understand the grower’s perspective. There is ample proof from the recent gale damage.

We support the Voluntary Code of Conduct in its present form. It encourages growers to think carefully and act responsibly in the siting of tunnels and to communicate with neighbours.
Finally, and most importantly, it is important to keep the whole tunnel issue in context.

  1. Tunnels do not cause smell or noise. The only impact is some visual impact for a short period of time.
  2. Soft fruit only covers 0.5 of 1% of the land area of Herefordshire and less than that is covered in tunnels and then only for part of the year.

Less than 10 people have rung to complain to the council in the last 2 years.
(Mr Barnett – Head of Planning)

Angus Davison, Fruit Grower in Ledbury Herefordshire.

Our farm employs 55 full time people who almost all live in Herefordshire.

Annually we employ around 500 seasonal workers. The majority of these staff are students from Eastern European Universities who come to the UK through the UK government SAWS (Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme) programme. On average the students are with us for 20 weeks during the season. Annually we pay this group of staff around £1.6m whom we know withdraw from us and spend 40% of their money in the local community before leaving for home.

We also introduced the multibay tunnels into the UK and now, among others, manufacture and export them.

Being a cause of the predicament, and having sympathy for the concerns, obligates me to explain a little. In so doing I wish to make 4 points.

1. Customer demand.
Business requires responding to customer demand. If you don't respond someone else will. An industry that ignores demand does so at it's own peril (this has happened a lot in the UK). In this case the only alternative if the UK could not supply reliable quality would be for our customers to import. The USA would have been the source. Spain finishes in May when it gets too hot there, there is not enough grown in Holland, German quality is insufficient. The USA supply in our season now. Herefordshire produced ~8000t in 2003. Feeding demand of ~12million people. This would have required ~8000t of aviation fuel. No joke. Do we want that on our conscience? For a bit of visual amenity – tunnels are only used on 0.016% of our Herefordshire land.

2. Production Systems.
The production system of fleece and plastic mulches over plants, to keep them warm like humans in cold, is not unique to strawberries. In fact potatoes, salads, carrots and other crops use this system more than soft fruit. Growing under tunnels is more used on strawberries than other crops, but is not unique to Herefordshire, or UK, or Europe, in fact it is worldwide. It is the proven best way to grow strawberries to meet customer’s demand. Outside glasshouses there is no current commercial alternative, with current varieties and in our climate. Even in dry climates tunnels are used as the main production system. Spanish strawberries are near 100% covered, even Egypt & Israel are covering. France - where equal appreciation for the landscape exists - is widely tunneled. We cannot, in Herefordshire, ignore the rest of the world.

3. Evolution of Herefordshire Agriculture
We are responsible for one of the most agriculturally advantaged counties in the UK. Very fertile good soils, mild microclimate and not covered in mountains, or chalk plain. Hence the historical success of agriculture in our county. Look at the old farmhouses here. However the agriculture here has kept adapting through those years. My family is a good example. I am a 4th generation Herefordshire farmer. My great grandfather grew strawberries here, training them form Putley to Birmingham market. My grandfather had hops and cider and then introduced the first combine and grain drier. His farm is now run by my uncle who grows little cereal, kept pigs until unprofitable, now farms blackcurrants.
Nothing is static, even in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Even though agriculture is more visually observable we have to accept change in it as in any industry. And it will no doubt change again.

4. The Future.
As responsible growers and in my case a manufacturer we do appreciate the concern of immediate neighbours. What are we doing? We can report three things you may not know:
a) With Reading University we have been working on new plastics that don't glare. A new one has recently been released, called Luminance THB. It diffuses light, factually reducing reflection by 30% over existing poly. I'm sure it will be widely taken up by Herefordshire growers. We are also trailing green poly, which has produced interesting results on the plants. No promises but we are trying more.
b) Everything to do with tunnels is recyclable. Metal, polythene and rope. 100%.
c) Tunnels massively reduce the need for pesticide use. In open field production, our defence against moulds was routine spraying for botrytis. Now we have moved to tunnel production we rarely need to spray for this most common strawberry disease.

Finally, I would like to finish my story with a thought. What do you see when you look at a windmill?

Metal in the sky, or a sustainable energy source saving environmental damage. Do you see good, or bad? I think most see good.

We agree tunnels (and windmills) may produce different thoughts to their neighbours. But when you see tunnels you should remember they are something that is 100% recycled, greatly reduce pesticide usage, cover the crop for part of the season only, and produce for a lot of people nutritious high antioxidant high quality food in response to customer demand that would be imported otherwise at vast environmental cost. We are responding to neighbour concerns and improving their use.

Like a windmill when you look at tunnels you should remember there is a lot of good – do not be hoodwinked to only see bad.

Eric Drummond, Fruit grower in Ross-on-Wye Herefordshire

During 2000 having had a number of years of unsustainable arable farming we carried out a business review. The advice given by government bodies and others was “produce products that the consumer wants – get closer to our customer – and do it at world prices”.

The result of this advice in the short-term was a number of redundancies. In the medium term we have followed that government advice and starter two new enterprises.

Government advice is to cooperate with our fellow farmers and respond to our customer needs. The enterprise has been just that – cooperation between myself and a neighbouring farmer, Roger Bellamy to produce the soft-fruit that South Herefordshire has been famous for, for generations.

The result a world-class unit - growing, packing and despatching fruit to the retailers, but importantly at a local level. A textbook example of government policy.

On the farm we are working with our customers to be the best. Polythene and tunnels are helping us achieve this. We are using the latest agronomic advice, which is allowing us to reduce irrigation, fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides, all as the customer and consumer wants.

We have also been pioneering the use of predators and insect traps, along with natural plant extracts, which is of huge interest to our customers. All these initiatives rely on tunnels.

Part of our philosophy is to been involved in improving our wildlife and environment. We have been operating a Countryside Stewardship Scheme for a number of years. This involves wildlife corridors, hedge and tree planting, pond restoration and improving habitats. We are also members LEAF who promote and develop integrated farm management.

We were awarded the highest level of recognition when audited in 2003 by Tesco’s nature Choice.

Employment on our farm since those early redundancies has risen to 44 full-time employees, 4 permanent part-time and a host of seasonal employment. The average age of our employees is late 20’s against an industry average of late fifties. Seven of our employees are studying for National Vocational Qualifications. We have two recent graduates working within our business – one being my son, who will be the third generation at Homme farm. This is an existing, vibrant business helping itself.

The benefits to our community are huge for employment, self-employment and local tradesman. We are bringing life into our community. Come and talk to our local bus firm. Shopping trips to the local town. Three buses every weekend taking staff to tourist attractions. Come and talk to the self-employed mechanic, who can now work in his own parish having travelled miles to work previously.

Some interesting financial figures arise from this. £2million of casual labour, which by the councils own statistics suggest 50% will stay in our community, £750,000 of permanent staff wages and over a million pounds worth of capital investment. All being spent in our locality.

In response to some of the issues bought up previously.

Anecdotal evidence has been given by the tourism sector that tunnels adversely affect tourism. There is no statistical evidence to prove this in fact quite the opposite. English Heritage visitor figures for Goodrich Castle that overlooks our farming operation show that visitor numbers are increasing.

2002 - 32,000 visitors No tunnels
2003 - 40,000 visitors Tunnels

People view Herefordshire as a diverse countryside and all types of farming are part of it.

Like-wise with wildlife the evidence is contrary to anecdotal views.

Hare number at record levels

Birds of Prey at record levels

Swans at record levels to the extent that nature enthusiast are monitoring the birds because we have so many types of swans

Again the pesticide usage is quite the opposite to what was being suggested at the last meeting, all helped by the sensible use of tunnels.

Sterilization was also mentioned. There are occasions when partial sterilization is used, as it is with many crops and in forestry. This is all within government control.

We as growers are working to make the voluntary code of conduct as effective as possible and welcome constructive comments to help us improve. We are particularly sensitive to the landscape in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), to our neighbours and how we can reduce the impact. Elevated vantage points looking down on any operation are virtually impossible to screen, however hedge growth, tree screening and the use of wildlife strips are all helpful in the long term.

We are working with manufacturers to assist us in reducing the impact as we have heard previously.

1) The use of tunnel plastic that is highly diffusing added which reduces the glare
2) Fleece that is different colours
3) Embossed plastic on the ground, that again will help take the glare away.

A neighbour visited my farm recently and stated he had built his house overlooking the Wye Valley in 1964 and he wanted a 1964 view. I say to you all, whether we have tunnels or not, that the view is constantly changing but most of all you cannot have a 1964 view with 2004 economics - no other industry has and certainly not agriculture who supply to highly competitive retailers and ever more discerning consumers.

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