British urged to binge on strawberries as cancelled events create glut


Farmers have called on the British public to binge on strawberries, after the cancellation of events such as the Wimbledon tennis championships raised fears of a looming berry glut.

As farmers gear up for peak strawberry picking season in June and July, they expect the lack of outdoor events, weddings and mass gatherings to cut demand for UK-grown berries.

British Summer Fruits, a trade body, said it would double its marketing and public relations spend in 2020 to “make sure we have fresh British berries in front of mind for customers”.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said she was in discussions with the UK government about the potential oversupply of homegrown foods, such as strawberries.

“It’s not just Wimbledon, it’s all the big sporting events. Formula One, cricket Test matches, football, they are huge outside events and all are cancelled,” she said. “For caterers and the wholesale trade, that market has just gone.”

She plans to pull together a coalition of “food and farming champions” to back her campaign.

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said it was working with industry to “find alternative routes for fruit to get into the supply chain” and that it would monitor the situation “to assess whether further intervention is required to support growers”.

The UK produced 132,000 tonnes of strawberries in 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization — up by a quarter from a decade earlier. Raspberry production was 15,000 tonnes. In a normal year the country also imports additional berries.

Wimbledon had been due to begin on June 29. At last year’s event, tennis fans scoffed 33 tonnes of strawberries.

Nick Marston, chair of British Summer Fruits, said: “It’s about those lost events — we are encouraging people to get out in their gardens, give fresh berries to their children and knock a tennis ball around as they might do anyway during Wimbledon.”

The closure of restaurants and cafés has already led to gluts in milk and dairy products. For highly-perishable strawberries, there is even greater urgency.

Farmers are also struggling with recruitment after coronavirus prevented travel by many of the eastern European workers who normally travel to pick the crop.

Elaine Clarke of Manor Farm Fruits in Staffordshire said she would normally send about 10 per cent of her crop to catering suppliers, while she was also concerned social distancing measures might damp retail demand.

“Fruit is quite an emotive purchase, with families going around shopping together, ‘Let’s have some strawberries’ . . . With the restrictions in supermarkets it’s quite a different way of shopping now,” she said.

Ms Clarke, who sells 1m punnets into supermarkets each year, has now set up a “strawberry drive-through” at her farm enabling customers to buy without leaving their cars.

Marion Regan of Hugh Lowe Farms in Kent, which supplies Wimbledon, told the Oxford Farming Conference podcast last month that “during those two weeks it’s really important for us”. She added that the farm was now “committed to that crop”.

“I’m hoping that everyone will think ‘Gosh, it’s high summer, let’s eat plenty of strawberries’ and we will be able to find other outlets for it,” Ms Regan said, adding that she had also spoken with food banks about donating berries.

Social distancing measures had also pushed up farmers’ costs, said Mr Marston.