The UK can expect an earlier and bigger strawberry crop this year due to dry and sunny weather conditions – as long as there is enough labour to pick them, according to British Summer Fruits.
The trade body said UK consumers could expect around a 50% increase in British strawberry supplies in the last two weeks of May, compared with the same period last year, when the harvest was delayed by unseasonably cold spring weather.
This year had been “significantly drier and brighter than last year”, said BSF chair Nick Marston. “You would expect to see a really good-quality strawberry crop and probably coming in around two weeks earlier than last year in terms of peak volume.”
But despite the good news regarding crop growth and this year’s harvest, the sector still faced significant “challenges”, he added, with labour and profitability matters of “serious concern, particularly for the sustainability of the industry in the medium and long term”.
The sector typically employed 30,000 of the fruit & veg sector’s 70,000 seasonal workers, he suggested. However, the seasonal worker scheme that accounted for these workers had faced delays due to the Ukraine conflict – leaving Marston to suggest “it was too soon to tell” how the industry would be affected.
And according to data commissioned by BSF, the cost of production had increased by 20p per 400g punnet of strawberries and 21p on 200g of raspberries compared with 2021.
“Growers are very concerned that if those cost of production increases aren’t recognised in some way by the market, there is a serious threat to the viability of a significant proportion of the industry,” said Marston. “There will be fewer growers producing strawberries and the volume of strawberries produced will decline.”
For berry growers, 50% of costs can be traced back to direct labour, which is a particular problem this year with wages on the Seasonal Worker scheme increasing from £8.91 last year to £10.10 an hour. This would have an inflationary affect on the whole of the sector’s pay structure, said Marston, as pay rises would have to be matched across the board and growers would still have to give a productivity bonus at the end of the season.
“In terms of the weather and the way that the stuff is growing, that is the one leg of the stool that is looking fine,” said Marston. “As long as you can pick them and as long as those price increases are recognised in some way in the marketplace, then that will be a great outcome.”