Saving Scotland’s soft fruit with science

Article by Dr. Susan McCallum, blueberry researcher at the James Hutton Institute. The article first appeared in The Herald on 21st February.

The closure of one of Perthshire’s best-known berry growers was a devastating blow to the soft fruit industry in Scotland last week. Leadketty Farm has been home to the Corrigall family for 80 years and employed more than 100 people each summer during berry picking season.

But rising production costs and a lack of support from supermarkets saw the family forced to close down operations, taking to social media to share the heart-breaking news amid a wave of support and kind messages.

And it is no surprise that even long-established growers are struggling ­- the biggest outlay for any soft fruit supplier is picking costs, and these have been increasing by 10 per cent year on year with Brexit, Covid-19 and global unrest all to blame.

Add the shifting weather patterns due to climate change to this list, and it’s not difficult to see why the future of British berries is bleak.

Scotland has long been synonymous with growing berries, the rolling landscapes and fertile soils are perfect for high quality crops, with Perthshire, Tayside and Fife earning a sterling reputation for the quality of their products.

Climate change forecasts suggest that Scotland could continue to be an excellent region for growing soft fruit, while areas of England may become too hot and dry.

Data shows that consumers would prefer to buy local, but the financial realities and demand for year-round availability of berries mean purchasing patterns tend to favour imported and cheaper products. It’s this approach that is leaving traditional family-owned businesses like the Corrigalls to suffer.

In fact, a survey by British Berry Growers, the industry body representing 95 per cent of British berries sold in the UK, found that 80 per cent of berry growers feel they no longer have partnership relationships with supermarkets. This disconnect is evident, despite the fact soft fruit is estimated to be worth £1.7 billion to the UK market.

New research and technology
However, research and technology being developed at the James Hutton Institute could provide hope for the sector.

From developing more resilient strains, honing better quality products, flavours and yields to building in climate resilience and plant establishment, we are always looking at ways we can help to create a more fruitful environment for the industry.

One of our current projects is looking at alternative substrates to grow strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. We’ll be trialling the use of UK sourced woodfibre products to replace peat and coir, which are in high demand, unsustainable and often need to be imported from tropical regions.

We also recently launched a new five-year project called “Economics of Production” which focusses on raspberries – looking at where savings can be made through research and breeding to help reduce production costs.

But positive change is driven by collaboration. Our priority will always be to support growers across the UK, bringing together world leading researchers and scientists with farmers, to help find solutions for the challenges they are facing.

We want to reduce our reliance on imported goods and champion the UK’s produce, fostering a brighter future for the industry, so that we don’t have to see any more local growers forced into ending decades of production.

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