The impact of the rising National Living Wage (NLW) and Brexit will mean the vast majority of strawberries grown in the ‘high labour-cost’ UK will be all be grown in substrate systems within the next decade, according to experts.
With labour being the single greatest cost within horticultural businesses – accounting for between 35-60% of business turnover – the industry has long sought ways of increasing productivity and labour-use efficiency.
With the current unstable political climate, UK strawberry growers are looking at increased productivity, better quality and less wastage more than ever before, and the move to substrate-based table top systems may be set to increase in a bid to future-proof businesses.
In soft fruit growing, the land area of production has fallen significantly in the last 20 years, and according to the Andersons’ report commissioned by the NFU, published this year, this is a symptom of investment in the use of polytunnels, that’s also increased productivity and value of the crop by 296%. It has also significantly increased the efficiency of labour.
The Andersons’ report shows that over the next five years, forecasted increases in National Minimum Wage (NMW) alone are equivalent to 47-58% of current business profit.
The additional cost of NLW over the same period is equivalent to 129-158% of current business profit. In other words, sometime between year three (2018-2019) and year four (2019-2020) of NLW being in place, the additional cost has the potential to make horticultural businesses unprofitable. This is coupled with the threat of labour becoming less available as a consequence of Brexit.
Angus Davison, from Haygrove – Herefordshire-based grower and supplier of polytunnels and substrate systems, believes the increased cost of labour to be a key driver in the move to substrate growing on table tops. “The living wage and Brexit will create a quicker move to table tops and covered substrate systems because labour is more expensive and may become limited when compared to now.
“It’s a substantial initial outlay but depending on table top system type, the payback in reduced picking costs averages between 20-40%, plus reduced husbandry costs. If land availability is limited and rent is high, and within an unpredictable labour environment, these benefits alone far outweigh the initial investment, and this is before we look at improved quality and yield,” says Angus.
Angus says that strawberry crop production is around 60% substrate in the UK now, and growers are seeing huge benefits from reduced picking costs, greater yields, better uniformity, higher quality and fewer husbandry tasks – such as no need for bed making or moving tunnels.
“There are more kilograms per person, per hour, per day and the welfare conditions are better, because pickers aren’t bending down as much.”
Angus believes coir substrate is the first choice for growers. “Coir is the preferred growing medium because it maintains better air-filled porosity (better drainage ability) than peat. It’s more sustainable, and transport costs are relatively low versus peat because it’s transported compressed and dry and then wetted up and expanded on site.
“All berries in the high labour cost UK will be grown in substrate systems within a decade, other than organic, a few PYO’s, and perhaps a few larger enterprises in Scotland,” adds Angus.
Labour is a worry post-referendum and offering pickers table top strawberries to pick is an important step in future-proofing businesses, according to Mark Davies, commercial head of fruit for Agrovista.
“Growers have always worked hard to attract and retain workers on fruit farms through remuneration, living and working conditions and this is ever more important when labour is likely to be short,” says Mark.
“Already at the back end of this season, I’m hearing stories of pickers returning home early, having hit their earning target and not knowing whether they will be welcome back next year to pick.
“Lobbying groups are working hard to raise the profile of this issue, but the perishable nature of soft fruit means that a shortage of labour for even just a day or two can have devastating effects on a field of fruit in full pick. Converting more crops to table tops grown in coir substrate is becoming increasingly important to retaining valuable pickers,” he adds.
“Growing strawberries in coir substrate on table tops is now an industry standard,” says Kalum Balasuriya, managing director for leading coir substrate producer, Botanicoir. “Although the initial capital investment of conversion is an important consideration, the long term benefits are clear.
“Environmental pressures are easier to monitor and overcome because there are less variables in coir than soil. Pests are easier to contain and coir can completely overcome any weed issue. Irrigation and fertiliser applications can be optimised, because the absorbency/drainage level is uniform across the crop.”
Kalum comments that some growers operate in coir growbags on raised beds to keep the initial costs down, but once the benefits are seen, the conversion rate to table top is high. “Having said that, some of our larger growers are going straight from the ground to table tops because the long-term savings are so well understood.
“With labour costs rising and political uncertainty, coir substrate systems can alleviate some of this pressure, because a higher quality, lower waste product, with improved labour efficiency is almost guaranteed,” adds Kalum.
Richard Leeds, business development manager at Withers Fruit Farm in Herefordshire grows all 125 acres of strawberry crops in coir substrate on table tops.
A large proportion of the grow bags Richard uses are supplied by Botanicoir. “We get less wastage from dirt and soil and mud splash and we get better yields from the coir substrate that we use. This lowers picking costs and gives us better picking conditions for our workers, which is very important to us.
“We first tried growing on table tops in 1996, and this was quite a risk then because returns weren’t guaranteed. We converted an acre of strawberry crops over, but this was with peat and the air filled porosity and overwintering was poor. We moved to coir in 2003 and haven’t looked back since.
“Now we’re growing 100% of the strawberries in coir substrate and the results far outweigh the initial costs. We supply five leading supermarkets in the UK so hitting quality specifications is crucial and since converting to coir substrate the waste figures are down from 25% to 10%.
“Labour costs are a big proportion of the business overheads and with the continued increase in wages, all growers are looking to increase productivity in any way possible – and coir substrate helps this process because we’re getting more kilograms per acre, less waste and improving efficiency all the time.”
The strawberry crop on Withers Farm has been grown in coir substrate on table tops for over ten years. “We have a very close working relationship with Botanicoir. The coir grow bags we receive are so important for producing such a large crop – the product has a good open texture and great quality which is consistent, and this is crucial,” adds Richard.