Wherever you were, I expect part of the joy in eating those strawberries was the image of the country idyll where the fruit was grown on a bed of straw and the knowledge that the season will not last. I hate to burst your bubble, but both these ideas are a myth. Most British strawberries today are grown in coconut fibre under acres of polytunnels and the season has been extended far beyond summer.
The question is, does it matter? The extension of the strawberry season began in earnest in the 1990s with the introduction of new varieties of strawberries. Plant breeders realised you could cross the traditional British ‘June-bearer’, which only fruits for a short period in the summer and produces the best flavour, with the Mediterranean ‘ever-bearer’ that will fruit as long as the sun is shining. By putting these new varieties in glasshouses and polytunnels, fruit farmers were able to extend the season for tasty strawberries from six sweet weeks over the summer to eight months from May to September.
At the same time technology leapt forward so that it was possible to grow bigger, juicier, fatter strawberries faster. Strawberries on the ground are now often grown under plastic sheeting rather than straw. Many are grown on tables, so that they are easier to pick, in a growing substrate (usually coconut fibre, or ‘coir’). The fruit is drip irrigated throughout the day with fertiliser mixed in with the water. Even organic strawberries are often grown under polytunnels to extend the season, though without the use of chemicals.
Visiting a Scottish fruit farm recently I was struck by the luscious fruit hanging from the tables. Of course, it is nice to eat a fresh strawberry from a traditional straw bed – and I certainly would not bother with more carbon intensive strawberries flown in from Morocco in January or from a heated greenhouse in October –but I see no harm in a British strawberry in May or September – a little outside the traditional summer season. Parents have certainly welcomed the extension in the season as a good way of getting fruit into children.
The bigger problem is who picks the fruit? For the last few decades, the British strawberry industry has relied on pickers coming in from abroad, mostly Eastern Europe. But with Brexit and the end of free movement of migrant labour into the UK it is getting a lot more difficult.
This year farmers have struggled to fill positions. A scheme to encourage British people to pick strawberries has been axed by the government, and the ongoing uncertainty about travel restrictions due to the pandemic has not helped. Robots are unlikely to help with delicate fruit like strawberries for at least another decade.
At Angus Soft Fruits, a strawberry farm near Arbroath in Scotland, I met workers who were happy to return but are nervous about the future and whether the UK will be remain an option for them.
For this year, the government has extended the seasonal workers quota at the request of desperate fruit farmers. But while ministers say they are committed to increasing homegrown fruit and veg in the UK, there remains a question over how to continue attracting migrant workers to the UK in a busy global marketplace and how to help farmers encourage domestic workers. It is estimated UK horticulture needs 70,000 workers a year.
Our strawberries are famous, rightly so, for their flavour. But if we want to keep growing the fruit we have to find a solution to the gap in seasonal labour. Remember it is not just memories of summer that makes strawberries taste so delicious. It is technology and innovation, and the hard work of people like Remiziye, Myumyun, Atushe, Angel, Bozhidar, Irina, Setso, Catalin, Lyuben, Ivan, Alia and Gyuten who picked them