Robert Simpson - Fife Fruits

Labor and inflation major challenges for the UK soft fruit industry

Scotland’s strawberry harvest is well under way and the timing seems to be about normal. Robert Simpson from Fife Fruits who grow fruit in 32 hectares of tunnels at different locations between Cupar and St Andrews, said the strawberry harvest started on 11th May.

"However, volumes in the first week or so were low due to the poor weather which meant ripening was slow and we didn’t get started into significant volumes until last week, about 10-12 days after our first picks."

As per normal the weather has a great effect and every season is different now.  Overall it was a mild winter and fairly kind spring so crops on the whole are looking reasonably well. Pest and disease pressure to date has been relatively low.

"We have not increased acreage this year but are aiming to stay roughly the same as last season.  Availability and access to seasonal labour to harvest the crops has been a major concern, and continues to be, that is a big driver for us and most soft fruit growers at the moment I think in not growing production. The labour challenge, and increasingly high costs have now also been accompanied by the massive cost increases we are seeing for all other inputs- fuel, fertiliser, packaging, transport and logistics costs, every input really.  Hopefully some of these costs are returned in sales prices of fruit but at this point there seems very limited acknowledgement from retail buyers of the real cost increases being borne by the industry and a reluctance to take this on board."

Malling Centenary is now the main variety at Fife Fruits, alongside a similar variety Malling Allure, both bred at East Malling in Kent. They are the current standout varieties for consumer satisfaction according to Robert; generally larger fruit, lovely colour, red through the berry and superior sweet taste.

Difficult times for growers
"Everything seems to be working against us in the industry just now, from Covid 19 in 2020 to Brexit and now the war in Ukraine (where a significant percentage of the UK seasonal fruit picking workforce was planned to be recruited), high UK employment, to additional administration and higher than normal wage increases for seasonal VISA scheme workers being imposed by Government; there seems no end to the barriers being created to make doing the most critical part of our job more difficult and stressful."

Robert said that it looks like there has been some small increases in prices to date but no-where near enough and prices in the supermarkets even this week are back to price points they have been in years gone by- £2.00 per punnet/ £1.89 per punnet/2 for £3.50 type pricing. 

"Of course supermarkets perhaps are wary of the general belt tightening of the public possibly this year as everyone's budget comes under pressure and they are keen to maintain sales. However I think we do need to reflect the true cost of production in food, this is the only long term sustainable way ahead. 

Is this sustainable for growers?
"In a word, NO. I don’t think so. We expect difficult times ahead.  However we always have to be hopeful that times will change.  Growers are typically in their businesses for the long haul and don’t give up easily so I think in general the industry will continue to work ever harder to find efficiencies and improve productivity.  We also need people to back British and local food. That should be a countrywide priority/strategy. Those customers that we do speak to fully recognise and support our production, love our fruit and recognise the importance of local food and farming, but its still a message we need to get out further and back into the thinking of those in Government."

For more information:
Robert Simpson
Fife Fruits
Tel: +44 1334 655024 

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