by Joanna Wood
With most soft-fruit businesses now producing over a six-month period, no soft-fruit season can ever be described as a ‘breeze’, but perhaps this year has been especially challenging. Ben Drummond of E.C Drummond’s Homme Farm, Ross-on-Wye speaks for many, when he describes his season as “very, very spikey”. With 125 acres of tunnels and eight acres of glass, the farm supplies strawberries to Morrisons from early-April until mid-November. The long, cold spring meant a late start for this relatively early site, and then there was a series of hot spikes followed by cold to contend with, causing dips in production before the prolonged hot weather that extended into August. Ben says that the very hot weather caused the planting of the glass for the autumn crop to be delayed by four to five days, so the glass is now running a bit late. But at least sales in September have been good. The farm normally aims to produce 2,000 tonnes, “but we won’t get there this year” says Ben.
Ben uses Malling Centenary as his June-bearer and mainly ever-bearer varieties Prize and Arabella from Plant Sciences International. He suspects that the high temperatures caused thermo-dormancy in some Murano and the long, cold spring followed by heat didn’t help the Malling Centenary, which had smaller berries than previously. “I think we were hotter here earlier than in Kent, with a very hot June and then slightly cooler than the south-east in July and August” says Ben. “Rainfall, or the lack of it, was similar, so we used huge amounts of water”. Reflecting on the conditions, Ben says “short sharp heat is okay, but prolonged periods of heat stretch everything. It was challenging on all systems and people particularly were worn out by the heat”. The late start meant that pickers were not making as much money as expected and, together with quality issues, this all cost the farm more than in a normal spring and it took some time to recover. “The result is that picking costs are up on last year by about 9%”, says Ben.
The Drummond family has been farming in Herefordshire since 1956. Ben’s grandfather moved down from Scotland and the farm remains a mixed farming operation. Today the business is based around poultry production, soft-fruit growing, arable farming and potato enterprises. After a spell of travel and university, Ben came back to the farm in 2005 to manage the soft-fruit. With his father Eric and brother Sam they manage and oversee the partnership’s day-to-day operations, together with a dedicated management team. Originally a member of Berry Gardens, the farm switched to direct sales to Morrisons in 2008.
The prospect of Brexit in 2019 has meant that Ben has speeded up investment in several areas. To remove people from the system, there has been investment in more automation in the packhouse. “I’ve also pulled forward converting all production to table-tops, so we no longer have any bags on beds.” Table-tops allow more cost-effective picking and Ben considers that anything which pickers find more attractive will help to retain returnees and attract new seasonal workers in the future. To quote from the farm’s website: “All of our production is now grown in substrates and on table-tops. This allows us to precisely monitor and control the growing conditions and, most importantly, allows easy access for picking the fruit. It speeds up the process and eliminates all bending over to pick the crop, ensuring a great working environment for all.”
Botanicoir substrates have been used from the start, working with their UK partners Agrovista. “We’ve never used anyone else’s bag and have no cause to do so”, says Ben. He’s been pleased with the performance of the new Precision Plus Ultra growbags which combine three different types of particle. This unique, patented method of producing the substrate gives the mix a more open structure and better aeration. “In spring, they wet-up more quickly and more easily and continue to drain well as they get older. Two-year-old Precision Plus Ultra bags are still performing well, and we will be going for a third year of life with confidence, with more Ultra-particles in the mix helping aeration” says Ben. By nature, the Precision Plus Ultra mix structure is very ‘steerable’ and this has helped in the challenging weather conditions this year.
The Ultra particles increase the hydration speed of the coir and this has been advantageous when dealing with quick turnarounds. “Dehydrated bags are great as there’s less volume to handle, meaning less vehicle movement, which is important in wet weather, and fewer people are needed who are then free to do other jobs. But all this advantage would be lost if the bags did not wet-up quickly. The swift turnaround was vital this summer when the heat delayed the planting of everbearers, and every day lost has knock-on effects for the autumn harvest schedule.”
Looking forward to next season, what challenges does Ben see? “Our aim next year is to grow a good crop which will help to keep and attract the best people. Every year we employ about 200 seasonal workers, who come from Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. We need to be the destination of choice, with the best facilities and best crops so that pickers can earn the most money.” Certainly, this year Ben has noted a dwindling in the number of returnees to the farm, and the quality and output of seasonal staff is going down, whilst recruiting is getting more difficult. In the first few weeks of September, with increased competition from top-fruit and potato harvesting, there were not enough pickers and offering more hours to existing staff was not ideal. When asked how seasonal labour availability and Brexit will impact on the farm next year Ben admits, “It will be difficult next year; we won’t be expanding our soft-fruit business”. This backs up a recent statement about the SAWS pilot scheme from Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits. “Our farms are reporting staff shortages of 10-20% already, and to have any effect in terms of supporting our successful industry, around 10,000 are needed now, not 2,500. This number will have little effect on the current shortages that UK farms are facing as we speak, and will not sustain a standstill, let alone growth.”