Over 85% of the UK strawberry crop is now grown in a tunnel “table top” system. This is a system of hydroponics where no soil is used. The plants are grown in plastic troughs full of insulation and fed automatically through a water flow to which chemical fertilisers are added. Also, pesticides as needed are fed to the plants.
They are picked by gangs of mostly Eastern Europeans especially brought in for the work. No English persons are interested in working 12-hour shifts, picking continuously for 24 hours a day, with lights being set up for the night time shift. All staff live on site and are paid minimum wage, plus a bonus for exceeding the standard quota amount.
It is highly skilled work and very physically demanding. The workforce tend to be only in UK for a few months of the summer and send the bulk of their hard earned money back to their own country to help support their families; so relatively little of the money remains in the local community.
The farms are large, at least 50 acres of plastic tunnels, with almost no signs of any biodiversity. They cause considerable problems in rural areas, not just as a result of the appearance of such a huge swath of plastic, but also due to the increased flooding of local areas around the complexes.
The system is highly intensive of inputs and carries a massive carbon footprint. Yields are remarkably high, compared with crops grown in real soil; and they continue for a long season with varieties that have been especially bred for the supermarket trade, to have a long shelf life and look good.
Due to the high inputs, the risks to the growers is quite low as they have strict control over the whole system and pest and disease are generally of low impact. The establishment of these farms is hugely capital intensive and as a result they tend to be run by large companies.
The cheap strawberries that you can buy in any supermarket are nearly all grown in this way, so if you buy such produce you may be supporting this form of agriculture that has no respect for the environment or the rights of people employed in that system.
We were the first ever organic strawberry growers in the UK and have perfected our system of production to ensure that the environment is fully protected and enhanced. We use living soil to grow our crop and never use any fertilisers or pest control products. We have no need to justify or make any apology for the price we charge, as it is still too low to be realistic; we have had to invest heavily to improve our planting systems and accept a much lower return than we did when we started this venture almost half a century ago.
We are able, by various clever cultural methods and propagation of our own stocks, to gain very early crops before any other organic growers in the area. This is highly labour intensive so we need to charge a higher price for the very first few weeks of fruit, before the main season starts at the beginning of June. Over 65% of the price that you pay for our strawberries goes to the staff who all live on the farm and shop locally. This is extremely beneficial for the local economy, even more so at the present time with restrictions on travel. In total we grow around half an acre of strawberries, around 10,000 plants, tiny compared with supermarket producers. If we wished to turn the strawberries into a truly profitable business venture we would need to grow on a massive scale at last 50 acres, this would employ around 400 people!
We have grown strawberries as well as a range of organic produce for over 40 years. Our first ever strawberry crop was in 1976 and we sold the fruit for £3.20 per kg. The average farm wage at that time was around £1.30/hour. So, I could have bought around 400 g strawberries for one hour of labour. Last season we sold our strawberry (1.2 tonnes) crop for an average price of £7.00 /kg paying our picker £11 per hour. So, by today’s value, one hour of labour will buy 1.5 kg of strawberries.
Almost four times as much as 45 years ago. This is not due to the increase in farm wages but to the downward price trend of food. Not just strawberries, it applies to all foods. Bread wheat in 1976 was £90/tonne, today it is around £140 /tonne. And people complain about the price of food and they complain about the farmers damaging the environment.
Food needs to be priced to allow for the repair and maintenance of a sustainable planet.
See our recipes with Strawberries here.