I love seeing the berries start to turn blue. It starts with one or two, and then boom, in about a week’s time there will be masses.
We would usually start picking around the 21 July, but this year you can put that forward about two weeks; all that hot weather we had recently has brought everything on.
Most of our seasonal pickers come from the Czech Republic, but this year only four can come because of Covid-19. We’re in the same boat as other growers. We take on 25-30 people for the picking normally, and we have recruited that locally this season. We have enough people and that’s all I can hope for really.
I’m a third-generation blueberry grower, with my mother before me, and her father before that. We’ve been growing blueberries on this farm since 1949; my grandfather actually introduced the first blueberry to the UK full stop. He was one of four who responded to an advert offering four free blueberry plants from British Columbia, and the only one who made it work commercially.
Even up until the 1990s, we were the only ones growing them in the UK – that was before the health benefits around antioxidants became known and it really took off. A blueberry bush can be left in the ground for a very long time; we are still cultivating the same ones we had in the 60s. They get pruned in the winter, we put nets on in May and start picking in July, with the season ending in August.
The farm has very sandy soil; it’s about 10 miles in from the coast, next to Hampreston Heath, a Site of Scientific Interest in Dorset, where there are slow-worms, sand lizards, nightjars and all kinds of flora and fauna. The blueberry plantations are right by that; the bushes are 6ft at maturity, and this season we will produce around 18-25 tonnes, or 5.5 million berries.
Blueberry breeding has come forward at such a pace over the last 20 years. Here we grow the early season variety Duke, main season varieties Blue Crop, Blueray and Berkeley, and we’re trialling some new ones that have very large and very firm fruit called Titanium and Megasblue. Older varieties have the tendency to be a little softer, which I prefer, but nowadays the fashion is to have a real crunch.