British blueberry growers are grubbing up blueberry orchards or giving away fruit to charity as prices from supermarkets and growing competition from Peru have made it too difficult to continue.
The news comes as this year’s UK blueberry season reaches its peak, running primarily from July to November, though growers from Scotland to Herefordshire are already reducing their growing area for the long-term.
A video of an orchard being grubbed up on a farm on the east of Scotland was shared thousands of times last month, with fruit grower Ross Mitchell explaining that: “With blueberry growing in the UK being squeezed so much by cheap imports, it’s resorted to turning them into compost. These bushes were some of the first planted in the UK. As a nation, we are happy to outsource our food security. How sustainable is that model?”
Mitchell said he has grubbed up 10 out of his 90 hectares of blueberries this year, and will be also be looking to diversity into non farming activities. “Polish crops have always been there and [they are] not a cheap product so we can compete. It’s Peruvian mainly that’s flooding the market and with their cost of labour we cannot compete,” he said.
Another farmer, Peter Thomson, said he gave away his fruit last year to local charities after prices from supermarkets were too low to continue. “Blueberries were the main part of our business and after the 2021 season, it was apparent that supermarket prices were below cost of production and would only get lower, despite costs going higher,” he said, adding that he’s now looking for other uses for his land, including building development.
The lower prices have in part been driven by new breeding in blueberry varieties, which traditionally required frost to mature buds into flowering and meant that most fruit was grown in colder regions like Scotland. With the newer varieties, warmer countries like Peru have been able to accelerate their production and flood the global market.
Peru was on course to export almost 300,000 tonnes of blueberries for the 2023 season, according to trade magazine Eurofruit, and the crop is the country’s number one agricultural export. In the UK, according to figures seen by Wicked Leeks, only 11 per cent of all blueberries sold in supermarkets this year are expected to be British.
“Most blueberry growers I spoke to are very unhappy,” continued Thomson, who said the only reason many keep going is that having blueberries means that pickers can be offered 32-hours work in a week. Without that guarantee, farmers are unable to hire pickers through the government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.
“Now, blueberries can be grown in most countries, much more cheaply than here as labour costs are usually so much lower,” he added.
Another farmer, Charles Turner, said he has moved out of growing blueberries and now produces a branded gin instead, where returns are more favourable. “There has been a 51 per cent increase in costs since 2017 in fruit, mainly due to labour, and we struggle to cover that off,” said Turner, who has also stopped growing strawberries and raspberries in recent years and said it feels “quiet” on the farm.
“I don’t see a future for growing fruit with inflation and wage inflation. Currently there is no way of driving the price up. The only major offset for inflation that I can see is getting robotic picking,” he said, but added that: “It won’t be on my size farm. That’s where it will end up – we’re going to end up with a few big factory farms.”
Speaking about the mental strain and stress placed on fruit growers who are finding it increasingly difficult to make a profit, Turner said: “I look forward to going into the distillery – when I’m farming I look forward to the end of the day.”
He said that one thing that might have helped would be to give blueberries a ‘British brand’, which created a successful seasonal demand for British strawberries. “On British blueberries, I would get rid of all the plastic, use a sustainable punnet and bang on about food miles all the way from here to Peru,” he said.
Organic buyers have been praised for supporting British growers over cheaper options abroad in other sectors that are struggling, notably in apples. In blueberries, organic veg box company Riverford said it has given its grower and family-run farm The Dorset Blueberry Company a price rise this year to cover increased cost of production.
Despite the worrying long-term outlook, growers are keen to ask shoppers to support British blueberries where they can. One supplier, Hall Hunter, is offering giveaways on the streets of London during Wimbledon to encourage people to try blueberries, instead of strawberries, with cream.
Scottish grower Ross Mitchell added: “We will harvest Scottish blueberries from now till November. Please look out for them and support British.”