Sustainable production of strawberries meeting the challenges of climate change
Joanna Wood reports
Pressure groups and activists like Extinction Rebellion are constantly in the news making our consumers ever more aware of climate change and sustainability issues. Now is a good time to remind ourselves what the soft fruit industry is doing to face up to our responsibilities. If you are focussed on sustainability, then reaching the high standards required to become a LEAF Demonstration farm is a good route to take.
LEAF Demo Farms apart from demonstrating integrated farm management (IFM) best practice, also play a critical role in promoting sustainable farming to wider groups such as politicians, industry and students. With their 500-acre farm at Windmill Hill in Herefordshire devoted to 100% soft fruit growing, A.J & C.I Snell has been a LEAF Demo farm for some years. It’s an excellent example of how the whole industry is adapting to the issues of sustainability and climate change. The farm is owned and run by company partners Anthony and Christine Snell, growing 1000 tonnes of strawberries plus raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, along with a further 700 tonnes of conventional and Soil Association organic blackcurrants. As an NFU Horticulture Board member and Chairman of NFU Horticulture for the West Midlands and a leading fresh and frozen soft fruit grower, Anthony says the business takes their public relations and responsibility to the environment very seriously. His philosophy is that a whole farm sustainable approach combining modern technology with traditional methods should deliver profitable farming whilst enriching the environment and engaging local communities.
Anthony considers one of the biggest advances in the soft fruit industry has been the availability of coir for the bags in table top strawberry production and for other cane fruits grown in substrates. Compared with peat, coir is the ultimate renewable, sustainable growing medium product. It’s already a by-product from the coconut industry and when its function in the bags has finished it can still be useful. “We’ve used Botanicoir bags since we started the table tops and after two to three years we can recycle the coir by spreading it in between blackcurrant rows on the farm or on neighbouring arable land to maintain and improve soil structure” says Anthony.
The farm has now completely moved out of soil to bags on table tops as the benefits are a no brainer according to Anthony in terms of efficiency and in the light of continuing concerns over seasonal labour availability. “In soil, picking rates are 8 to 16kg per hour whereas from bags on tall tabletops pickers can easily do 20 to 25kg per hour”, says Anthony.
Water management is a huge issue both in terms of climate change and sustainability and provides another positive for coir bags versus soil grown. Anthony has improved the water efficiency of growing strawberries from using more than 80 cubic meters per tonne of strawberries to only 50 cubic meters of water per tonne of strawberries produced. With the trickle irrigation systems used for tabletops the water usage can be precisely regulated to give just what the plant needs, and the run-off is recycled. Water is recycled back to the farm reservoirs and is sand filtered before use again. Additionally, Anthony estimates that the polytunnels on the farm provide 24 acres of rainwater gutter collection. In use when the tunnels are covered for six months of the year, he calculates that with a summer rainfall of 350mm this means 33,000 cubic meters of water is collected. Fans of BBC TV’s Countryfile programme may have seen the immaculate reservoirs at Windmill Hill during a recent interview Anthony gave on the subject of reservoir construction.
Going into substrate has made pest and disease management much more efficient and helped to reduce pesticide usage. “Slugs were a major pest for us in soil grown strawberries, however with tabletops we have no slugs and no need for product to control them” says Anthony. He adds that the application of biofungicides has increased by 25% in 5 years with the use of products such as Serenade ASO (Bacillus Subtillis). The growing use of biological control with predators has reduced the reliance on specific pesticides and improved the biodiversity in the fields
Food waste as an issue is tackled head on by this business as the Snell’s have developed their own brand of frozen British fruit lines Windmill Hill Frozen Fruits. Anthony explains that with fresh and frozen fruit sales they can use all the fruit produced on the farm: Class 2 fruit plus any surpluses at peak times can be frozen and any over ripe fruit made into frozen puree. Only the mouldy fruit waste cannot be used and that is sent to a local anaerobic digester.
Sustainable supplies of coir
An issue Anthony has concerns about for the future is how climate change could have a knock-on effect on a sustainable supply of coir substrate. Unpredictable weather worldwide is causing havoc including with the monsoon rains so the investment by his supplier in a state-of-the-art drier is very welcome. A couple of winters ago on an educational farming tour of Sri Lanka, in the company of a group of West Midlands farmers and growers, Anthony and Christine suggested the group visit Botanicoir. “Everyone agreed it was one of the best visits we made in the whole country” reports Anthony. The group were struck both by the friendliness of their welcome and by the high standards throughout production at Botanicoir. And also how well the company was working with industry to make sure they supply growers with what they want. A good example is the new drier.
To overcome concerns over reliable supplies in 2017 Botanicoir launched the first mechanical drier of its kind. Previous attempts at mechanical drying of coir in the industry had resulted in damaged particles and a loss of quality in the final product. However, through years of extensive research, development and testing, the team of German engineers that worked with Botanicoir were successful in designing a system to avoid this sort of issue. The drier is fuelled by a biomass boiler and can run continuously, giving Botanicoir the edge in guaranteeing continuous supply in the face of changing global weather patterns.
Sustainability may appear to be a rather abstract concept and some may think that the opportunities for economic benefits might be limited. However, you have to consider sustainability as a business investment. Both at Botanicoir and Anthony Snell’s Herefordshire farm, sustainability-driven innovation has been wholeheartedly embraced. For them sustainability entails improving business operations and processes to become more efficient, with a goal of reducing costs and waste. It is also about insulating a business from the risk of resource price shocks and shortages. There are intangible business benefits that go far beyond the bottom line, whether it’s improving your overall carbon footprint, enhancing your brand image or engaging your employees in a more profound way.