Summer heatwave delivers tonnes of surplus strawberries

Pieter van Egmond is managing director at Norfolk fruit grower Place UK

Pieter van Egmond is managing director at Norfolk fruit grower Place UK, which has produced a surplus of strawberries this summer - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The summer heatwave has created a juicy glut of surplus strawberries on farms - prompting a plea for shoppers to snap up Norfolk's berry bounty.

The prolonged hot, dry conditions have left many of the region's arable crops struggling in parched soils.

But the heat has boosted berry growth in the precision-irrigated polytunnels at fruit farms such as Place UK in Tunstead, near North Walsham.

In particular, it has produced tonnes of excess strawberries, which began their growing season earlier than ever, and will be picked until mid-October.

Pieter van Egmond with his bumper crop of strawberries under the polytunnels at Place UK. Picture:

Pieter van Egmond with his bumper crop of strawberries under the polytunnels at Place UK - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Place UK managing director Pieter van Egmond urged shoppers to seek out the current surplus of Norfolk berries in their local shops.

"With the hot weather we have had in the last few weeks the crop has really been motoring," he said.

"Now we have got very good levels of supply and, surprisingly, the near 40-degree temperatures haven't affected the quality.

"We have been through the Wimbledon [tennis] season with plenty of strawberries, but now the school holidays are here and the 'great getaway' has started, so the demand has naturally dropped and we have got an excess of production.

"Most of our fruit is sold to major retailers, but we are also a local producer that supplies through a wholesaler.

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"There are good volumes available and there has never been a better opportunity for Norfolk people to go and pick up a punnet of sweet, good-quality local strawberries."

Mr van Egmond said this year was a stark contrast to the previous growing season, which suffered from a cold March and April. 

"This year was the complete opposite and we had strawberries ready in the last week of April, which was a first for us," he said.

"Raspberries will come forward early but they won't necessarily produce a lot more fruit per plant. But the mid-season 'everbearer' strawberries will keep throwing out flowers and fruit, so in these hot periods they will keep producing more and more. 

"With the high temperatures through the night the plants don't shut down so they continue to grow 24 hours a day."

Pieter van Egmond with his bumper crop of strawberries under the polytunnels at Place UK. Picture:

Pieter van Egmond with his bumper crop of strawberries under the polytunnels at Place UK - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Place UK is one of the nation's leading growers of berries for major retailers, with an annual soft fruit production including 1,750 tonnes of strawberries, 500 tonnes of raspberries, 100 tonnes of blackberries and 150 tonnes of cherries.

But it also works with Norwich-based fruit and vegetable wholesaler D&F McCarthy, which supplies the company's berries to farm shops and independent retailers across East Anglia.

Managing director Sam McCarthy said recyclable cardboard punnets had been introduced this year to showcase the bountiful berries in a more sustainable way.

"Although there is an excess, the quality is still there and the strawberries are very tasty," he said.

"So now is the time to get out to your local farm shop or independent greengrocers.

Pieter van Egmond with his bumper crop of strawberries under the polytunnels at Place UK. Picture:

A bumper crop of strawberries at Place UK - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

"I would say the berries from Place UK are the best we have ever seen, and we want to share that with everybody."

Place UK is also freezing some of its excess fruit to ensure it does not go to waste.

Mr van Egmond said the firm is "very excited" about the creation of a new “Norfolk Farms” brand, partly driven by this year's bumper crops, to capture and sell some of the surplus fruit in a frozen format.

Pieter van Egmond with a punnet of strawberries grown at Place UK

Pieter van Egmond with a punnet of strawberries grown at Place UK - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Nationally, the surplus of strawberries has prompted some retailers to sell off the fruits cheaper than usual to prevent food waste.

Among them are Tesco, which is selling 1kg boxes at a discounted price of £4 or £5 at 1,600 of its stores.

The company's berries buying manager, Laura Mitchell, said: “The heatwave has brought on the strawberries faster than expected with many growers seeing production about 10pc to 15pc higher than normal for this time of year.”

Last year, shoppers bought more than 87,000 tonnes of British strawberries. The industry is worth more than £769m to the British economy, according to Kantar figures.

Blackcurrants and blueberries

While strawberries have thrived in the heat, other berry growers have had to take action to protect their crops during the long, dry summer.

Some East Anglian blackcurrant growers reported their later varieties had "cooked" on the bushes during the high temperatures.

Duncan Baker MP visits blackcurrant grower Mark Buckingham at Hill Fruit Farm in Swafield near North Walsham

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker (left) visits Ribena blackcurrant grower Mark Buckingham at Hill Fruit Farm in Swafield near North Walsham - Credit: Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I 

But Mark Buckingham, who grows blackcurrants for the fruit drink Ribena at Hill Fruit Farm in Swafield, near North Walsham, said his team had worked hard to ensure their crops survived the heatwave.

"We have been getting up earlier than we would have in previous years to get as much done before it gets too hot," he said. "This is both for the wellbeing of our employees but also so that the blackcurrants don’t spoil in the heat.

"Over the last few weeks we have seen some of the hottest days on record which has certainly brought its challenges and has unfortunately been quite stressful for many farmers.

"We’ve been quite fortunate as we’re a little closer to the coast than other Norfolk growers so it wasn’t quite as hot and our yields have actually held up quite well.

"Unfortunately, with temperatures in the UK on the rise - and winters getting warmer and dryer - we’ll need to remain vigilant to changes and continue adapting."

Part of that adaptation includes investment from Ribena manufacturer Suntory Beverage and Food in research at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland to develop new varieties that are more resilient to climate change.

"Improvements from this research include plans to create blackcurrant varieties that have canopies, which provide more shading to the berries and therefore greater protection against sunburn," he said.

Duncan Baker MP visits Ribena blackcurrant grower Mark Buckingham at Hill Fruit Farm in Swafield near North Walsham

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker (right) visits Ribena blackcurrant grower Mark Buckingham at Hill Fruit Farm in Swafield near North Walsham - Credit: Suntory Beverage and Food GB&I

Mr Buckingham recently welcomed a visit from North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker to demonstrate the harvesting operations, and discuss the farm's strategies to protect wildlife and habitats during the growing process.

Meanwhile, industry organisation British Berry Growers is predicting that twice as many blueberries will be picked in the first week of August compared to the same week last year.

It says bright sunny days throughout June and July have helped to produce high natural sugars overnight, making the berries sweeter, while good early pollination has made them more plentiful earlier in the season.