After two long winters, separated by the farming disaster that was last summer, followed by a late spring, it is hard to remember what abundance feels like. Many growers felt forsaken, with a mounting suspicion that they would never see a full and healthy crop again. To walk the farm this morning, bathed in sunshine, through one field after another of strong and healthy crops is blissful; I almost have to pinch myself to be sure it is not a dream. To once again be surrounded by a wealth of broad beans (first pickings are in the boxes this week), spinach, beetroot, potatoes, lettuce, onions and a multitude of baby leaf salad is truly joyous. In the polytunnels we have been picking cucumbers, basil, French beans, salad onions and are now starting the first tomatoes; all are looking fantastic. First pickings are often not the best but, to add to the joy, this year the flavour of most crops is wonderful.
My one sadness is walking the strawberry field; they taste great and it’s a good crop but this will be our last year of strawberries. After 25 years of experimentation and obstinate determination to grow them outside, we have conceded defeat. In our climate the only way to produce strawberries with any degree of reliability and economic viability is in polytunnels; others reached this conclusion years ago and 95% of the UK crop is now grown under cover.
Such stubbornness must run in the family. For 50 years my father made his money milking cows in a fairly conventional manner, and lost much of it keeping pigs unconventionally. His restless search for a system that respected their intelligence and natural instincts failed; we now buy our pigs from Helen Browning who, on better drained land with lower rainfall, has succeeded.
Perhaps we will put up our own strawberry polytunnels at some point but for now I cannot face the battle with planners, so our strawberries will be grown by Angus Davidson, a specialist organic producer in Hereford. I have not given up entirely, but after losing so much fruit to Botrytis in recent, damp years I’m happy to let someone else take on the strawberry struggle, for now at least.
Some of you may have found (or will be finding this week) the sprouting tips of broad beans in your boxes. We have been ‘pinching these out’ (the farming term for removing them from the plants) for several reasons:
- They offer something a little different to eat at this time of year and go well in a salad or stir fry
- It can spread a crop out so it doesn’t come all at once: if you wait until the first pods have started to form before pinching away, this won’t affect overall yield
- This can (not always) help prevent blackfly infestations. This pest tends to attack a plant from the tip downwards and by taking the tip out the whole plant becomes less inviting
- We need the work! Harvesting bean tips is a labour-intensive job and although we would like to do it, at this time of year we usually find ourselves swamped by more urgent tasks: Harvesting and weeding spinach and lettuce for instance. The unusually low temperatures in spring have slowed down several of our crops and the wet has written off others, so we find ourselves in the rare situation of having a labour surplus; so picking out a few bean tips suddenly becomes a viable proposition.
More optimistically we can see some of our summer crops finally rearing their heads: The lettuce is picking up, our spinach is nearly there and our strawberries are too: I found a few half-ripe ones in the field earlier this week and we may start picking as early as Monday.
The mild winter has been kind to our strawberries and as you look down the field early indications are that this could be a good year: but we never know with strawberries and a poor summer (weather-wise) can ruin 10 months of preparation. All of our fruit is grown in the open air and strawberries cannot be harvested in the rain; not only do the cardboard punnets turn to mush but the berries swell up and bruise easily, drastically reducing shelf life. The following day all this bad fruit has to be harvested anyway to prevent it rotting on the plant and spreading disease, so one day’s heavy rain can easily wipe out two days’ worth of productive picking: it is understandable why so many farmers opt for protected cropping. We might consider it ourselves but the relatively small amount of strawberries that we grow would make the required investment hard to justify.
Our Earliest varieties grown on the farm are Vibrant and Christine which will be closely followed by Fenella, Alice and Elegance. Our strawberry season is fairly short – about eight weeks all told – but we feel that many of the later varieties trade off flavour for longevity and so we prefer to keep things simple. Strawberry harvesting can be pretty back-breaking work and although they taste great I think that, come July, most of our pickers are glad to see the back of them!
Strawberries are a traditional sight at the start of the UK summer and on a sunny Tuesday in mid-June we took a trip to our fields in Devon to take some photos of them being picked.
Strawberries will usually be ready from late May to mid July but the timing has to be right. If they have a little green on them they will be able to ripen in the punnet, but if they are too green they can’t. If they’re too red, they don’t keep for long, even in the fridge.
For something different, try our recipe for strawberries in balsamic vinegar and orange juice.
Thanks to the 50 or so of you who responded to my musings on whether it would be a good idea to grow at least some of our strawberries under tunnels to protect them from the weather and consequent losses (newsletter of 14th June.) The original post is here.
There was a (very) small majority who felt that the eyesore was justified by benefit but is was a close thing. My views have changed over the years from being very anti tunnels to thinking that they are justified for intensive crops like strawberries. We will do some costings to check that it makes economical sense and the final decision will lie with our suppliers; in Devon that, means John, the farm manager. If it works economically we will not discourage it as we have in the past.
Responding to a few specific points raised in the responses
- An acre (originally defined as the area that one man could plough with one horse in a day) is 4000 square metres; 15 time the paying area of a tennis court or just over half the area of a premier league football pitch. So to supply all our 60,000 customers with strawberries would require about 8 acres of tunnels or about 5 football pitches.
- Extending the season; there was an over whelming majority who felt that tunnels were not justified to extend the season. Most people were happy to have a relatively short “natural season”. Tunnels can extend the season but this would not be our motivation; we and you seem perfectly happy with it as it is.
- The plastic lasts 3 to five years and would be recycled after use
- The plastic is usually clear and would appear white but some people have successfully used green. I am not convinced this is an aesthetic benefit.
- On flavour: My views have changed from a prejudice against tunnels as promoting lush growth and reducing light levels and therefore flavour. In practice we find that the best flavour comes from the plants with the best growing conditions. We often get unpleasant off flavours when plants suffer stress. I suspect that on average the fruit would be better from under tunnels.
Hope that is interesting
Over the last twenty years the huge majority of the UK strawberry crop has moved from open fields to the protection and intensification afforded by hundreds of acres of polytunnels, largely in Kent and Herefordshire. Plastic can advance a crop by perhaps two weeks, but the great advantage is the protection it gives from the vagaries of a British summer. Fruit must be picked dry to avoid bruising and to give a reasonable shelf life. Even more importantly, persistent dampness leads to a build-up of fungal disease, particularly botrytis, which can reduce a good berry to a foul tasting pulp in a matter of hours.
Our strawberries are grown extensively on high ridges at wide spacing which, in a normal year, gives enough airflow to dry dews and rain before botrytis sets in. There can be no doubt that polytunnels are a blot on the landscape; the question is whether they are justified by the economic and environmental benefit they bring by reducing wastage, extending the UK season, excluding exports and thus reducing food miles. For twenty years I have stubbornly persisted with growing outdoors, with the result that we have a relatively short season and, over the last few years, have not been able to pick up to a third of the fruit. Initially I was convinced that growing outdoors gave better flavour, but now I am not so sure and wonder if I have been overly dogmatic in my resistance. Across the five regional farms we would need eight acres of tunnels to provide a good supply of strawberries for the 45,000 homes we deliver to each week. Your views would be welcome.
Strawberries mark the start of summer and provoke Pavlovian dog style anticipation but, as in so many years, the first pickings had very disappointing flavour. Just as I was despairing and the first complaints started arriving, the flavour developed (no one knows why) and I am confident this will
improve further as we get into the main season.