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Updates about the Horticulture Wales project, along with industry news and opinion.

Scotland Soft Fruit Study Tour Review

06 November 2013

Last month, Horticulture Wales led a study tour of Welsh growers to the rural heartland of Perthshire, which is synonymous with Scotland’s proud heritage of producing strawberries, blackberries, and other quality soft fruits. Here is a rundown of the hugely-successful fruit farms and processing facilities the two-day trip paid a visit to, along with some of the insights gained by the growers…

Thomas Thomson (Blairgowrie) Ltd

First stop on the tour was the Thomas Thomson fruit farm in Blairgowrie. The Thomson family has a farming heritage dating back more than a century, with its soft fruit farm – which now covers 150 acres – first established over 40 years ago. Selling mainly to supermarkets through the Berry Gardens fruit production partnership in Kent, Peter Thomson and his team grow raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and redcurrants, as well as other less well-known fruits such as aronia berries and cherries.

Strawberries have been one of the farm’s most prominent crops for years, with varieties such as Elsanta, Sonata, and Driscoll’s Diamond grown in high beds (40cm) to improve drainage. However, the visiting growers discovered that due to an oversupply of mid-season crop, where peak growth coincides with other competing growers, strawberry farming had become much less profitable in recent years.

This has led to Thomsons shifting its focus towards other soft fruits such as blueberries and aronia berries – perennial crops that are suitable for the growing conditions, have a defined season, and have less competition. It is estimated that next year, the farm will still produce 100 tonnes of strawberries and 300 tonnes of raspberries, but blueberry production will increase significantly to 60 tonnes.

While exploring the farm’s fields and polytunnels, the growers were told that due to ongoing issues with Phytophthora root rot, particularly during wetter years, the company was increasingly moving into growing into substrates.

In addition to touring the farm’s growing area, the party was also able to go round Thomas Thomson’s purpose-built packhouse, which it constructed in partnership with two other nearby growers back in 2002. With three separate production lines, each of which can pack more than 100 trays per hour, at peak season the facility can keep up to 50 staff busy. Once packed, the fruit is transported in vans, rather than trailers, to minimise the damage caused by bouncing.

D & B Grant

A brief 10 minute trip in the minibus took the growers to the D & B Grant farm in Wester Essendy. Set up in the 1970s and currently using around 40 of its 145 acres of land for soft fruit production, the business grows mainly raspberries, strawberries and blackberries, the majority of which is frozen in one of the six on-site blast freezers, before being sold – as with Thomas Thomson – through the Berry Gardens organisation. Some frozen fruit is also sold to the nearby Stewart Tower Dairy, where it is used to manufacture ice cream, an increasingly popular way for growers to add value to their produce.

The growers had a close inspection of the series of cosy tunnels where the different fruits were grown: strawberry varieties included Sonata, Juliette, and Elsarta; raspberries included Glen Ample, Octavia, Glenn Doll, and Cascade Delight; while blackberries were mainly Loch Ness, a thornless variety that produces a good crop. At peak season, the farm will play host to as many as 230 fruit pickers and, in busy years, can move more than 200 tonnes of crops, often running three daily shifts in the packhouse to ensure trays are available for the pickers.

The farm’s freezing facilities were of huge interest to the touring party – all fruit that needs to be frozen is initially transferred to a temperature controlled room within three hours of being picked, where it is stored overnight (up to 2.5 tonnes) while the field heat is taken out. The berries are then frozen IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) and stored at -20oC in sheds that can hold 24 pallets each.

Obviously such facilities require a great deal of energy and resources to run – D & B Grant actually has three phasers and two transformers on-site, whilst the farm has also installed three 11kW wind turbines to generate its own electricity.

Trade Solutions (Scotland) Ltd

Following insightful tours of two successful but very different in their own right fruit farms, the study tour made the short journey into the hills of Blairgowrie to the home of Trade Solutions (Scotland) Ltd, the only specialist soft fruit processing company in Scotland.

The firm has been in business for more than 30 years and counts household names such as Ribena and Fredericks Dairies amongst its clients, while it also has strong links with companies in Germany. Trade Solutions takes soft fruit from local growers and producers from Kent and Hereford, and turns it into frozen, pureed, or juiced products. The tour was told that its biggest selling products were strawberry and raspberry juice sold as seedless puree, a production process that results in losing just 5% of the initial fruit intake.

The visit to Trade Solutions was of huge interest to the growers, who were keen to tour the plant’s freezing, pureeing, and aseptic processing facilities, picking up plenty of practical tips on how they could potentially add value to the primary produce they grow back in Wales.

They were shown how the fruit is first chilled to less than 5oC, before being macerated and pumped into a separating machine that can not only sieve the fruit to customers' exact specifications, from 7mm puree right down to juice at 0.4mm, but is also self-cleaning, a true feat of engineering!

The growers were also shown separate high-tech equipment that has the capability to distil and remove essence from the raw fruit, then concentrate it to around 1,500 times the original level, and were finally treated to a tour of the plant’s cold store, where all fruit is blast frozen within 24 hours of harvest before being kept at temperatures between -18 and -20oC.

Broadslap Fruit Farm

The second day’s activities began with a trip to Dunning, on the outskirts of Perth, and Broadslap Fruit Farm, where owner John Kirk has been in the growing business for nearly 40 years.

John initially grew strawberries to sell to supermarkets, but while that side of the business has become less of a priority throughout the years, he and his family-run firm have now expanded its range of produce into other soft fruits and vegetables. Fresh, ready-picked raspberries sold over the counter are its most popular current item, while the farm has also built up a loyal Pick Your Own (PYO) customer base too – some of its regular fruit foragers have to take two ferries and travel up to 150 miles from the Scottish isles to get to the site, but that certainly doesn’t stop them!

As well as strawberries (varieties such as Sonata, Florence, Finesse, and Pearl – the latter of which is not a particularly popular product with supermarkets), the farm now grows raspberries (Glen Ample, Tulameen, Octavia) and blackberries, plus smaller quantities of gooseberries, tayberries, brambles, potatoes, and cabbages.

Due to the particularly wet 2013 season, all production was carried out under polytunnels, which John Kirk revealed had led to additional benefits, particularly with PYO, as it enabled the farm to extend its season and allowed customers to pick under cover even during periods of poor weather.

John told the growers that there has been a definite trend in recent years of customers wanting to know more about provenance and where food comes from, but while this has led to a resurgence in PYO, he acknowledged that many farms were still struggling.

Craigie’s Farm Deli and Café

Before the growers headed back for their return flight from Edinburgh Airport, there was time for one last stop-off at West Craigie Farm in South Queensferry.

Owned by John Sinclair, whose family has roots in farming dating back more than 200 years, West Craigie was originally a dairy farm before shifting to fruit and vegetable production back in the 1980s. Now the 260 acre arable farm is home to a thriving PYO business offering customers a broad range of soft fruit (strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, plumbs, blackcurrants, and redcurrants), vegetables such as beans, peas, cabbage, and beetroot, and cereals like wheat.

The growers heard how the farm was working toward the LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) Marque, a quality assurance scheme that shows everything the farm produces is done so in a sustainable manner. They were also treated to a delicious lunch at the on-site café and farm shop, which first opened in 2007 and almost doubled in size two years later with the addition of a butchery.

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