An Essex-based fruit farm has defied the odds to grow strawberries in challenging conditions, thanks to innovative farming practices and consistent, free-draining coir-growing media.
Farm manager for Wilkin and Sons, which is behind the Tiptree preserves brand, Andrey Ivanov, was told that due to water scarcity and the high sodium and chloride content in the local water, it would be difficult to grow strawberries. "We proved everyone wrong and have now quadrupled annual strawberry yields.
"In 2015, we installed a Tiptree New Growing System (NGS) greenhouse, which was the first of its type in the UK. This is a fully enclosed system that maximizes the production area, recycles water, and extends the growing season, starting a month earlier and finishing a month later," he says.
The Tiptree NGS uses all the available growing surfaces because of the oscillating system installed in the greenhouse, and rather than cropping every second row, it uses 100% of the area.
"We can grow 100,000 per hectare of conventional strawberries comfortably, and possibly more, but it is variety and type of plant dependant," says Andrey.
"We collect all the rainwater from the roof gutters of the NGS and store it in a reservoir, and we use all that water to irrigate the crop. We are in the driest part of the UK, so water is scarce, and this system is self-sufficient in terms of water use once we reach a rainfall of 650mm throughout the year," he says.
Andrey explains that the system is climate controlled, and the vents automatically open when the temperature or humidity rises. "As everything is automatic – the perfectly maintained climate is great for growing the plants, but not only that, the conditions are better for the workers too."
"The strawberries are grown in Precision Plus Ultra grow bags from Botanicoir, and they are free draining, which really helps with the high salinity of the water and chloride content, which can both inhibit growing and damage the roots," says Andrey.
"The consistency of the coir growing media is really important because we can't afford to have variable growing media – we need guaranteed quality each year, or our system won't be as effective.
The strawberry rooting is always excellent, and that's why we continue using the product.
"We also re-use the grow bags for two years running, either with two plantings or by overwintering the strawberries," says Andrey.
Once the coir has served its purpose for growing, it's spread over the arable land on the farm to help enrich the soil.
Wilkin and Sons supplies all the major UK supermarkets, plus fine food shops and delis, with its preserves and is the only commercial grower of 'Little Scarlet' strawberries in the world. "These are our signature strawberries, from which we make a unique jam. Little Scarlet is a smaller strawberry with an intense flavor.
"Harvesting them is more time-consuming but worth it for the flavor. We grow them on table tops in coir, and they love the coir," says Andrey.
"Sustainability is central to what we do. Our five keystones are quality, integrity, independence, innovation, and sustainability. It all comes back to quality, care, and attention throughout the process," adds Andrey.
The Wilkin family has been farming at Tiptree, Essex, since 1757 and making quality preserves and spreads there since 1885. The business grows a range of fruits, including raspberries, strawberries, damsons, greengage, Victoria plums, rhubarb, quince, apples, and mulberries, across four farms.
For more information:
New Growing Systems
Paraje El Canadillar, 10 (04640) Pulpi