Slow strawberries & Luddite tendencies

In 40 years of growing strawberries, the non-organic crop has largely abandoned soil; going from 95% grown outside in the soil, to 95% grown on tabletops under polytunnels.

As the Solstice approaches, temperatures are finally beginning to rise. Until now, they have languished in the mid teens – causing our strawberries to ripen slowly. In a hot June, we must pick our way across the crop and return to the same beds within 24 hours. All non-essential work goes on hold as we struggle to get them picked, and the fields take on the smell of strawberry jam as over-ripe fruit has to be discarded. But this year, we can wait three days without the fruit over-ripening, giving us time to stay on top of weeding and planting without leaning on our staff to work long hours. Overall, we are having a good season.

In my 40 years growing strawberries, the non-organic crop has largely abandoned soil; going from 95% grown outside in the soil, to 95% grown on tabletops under polytunnels, either in a peat substrate or hydroponically in gutters (i.e. using water and nutrients but no soil). Moving the crop indoors reduces fungal disease, and thereby pesticide use (although 83 per cent of non-organic strawberries sold in the UK still have multiple pesticide residues), as well as extending the season. Tabletop growing makes the fruit more visible at an ergonomic height, massively increasing picking rates. Outrageously high-yielding varieties have been bred to suit the new conditions. The casualties are flavour and, I strongly suspect, nutritional value. 

A founding principle of the Soil Association is that “the health of soil, plants, animals, and humans are inextricably linked.” This has fed into organic regulations that require plants to be grown in living soil, which is not treated as an exploitable and disposable medium, but is nurtured as part of a circular and self-sustaining system. Some organic growers, normally more commercial and large scale, are frustrated that a pedantic observation of this principle has prevented them from following the non-organic industry into tabletop production. Are we pedantic Luddites who need to embrace technological progress?

I believe that this line should not be crossed. Just watching our young, flexible pickers working their way up the rows makes my back ache – but the fruits certainly taste better. I am also convinced that one day, science will show that the association with healthy soil makes organic strawberries better for us. I just don’t have the evidence… yet.


Leave a Reply

  1. I think – and hope, you are right! There must surely be a scientific link between taste and nutritional value. Sounds like the area for a PhD!

  2. I have no proof either, but I struggle to believe that strawberries or anything else grown hydroponically has anywhere near as much nutritional value as those grown in cared for soil!

  3. Well much as I admire Guys leadership on Organic produce I am also wary of dogma. Obviously Soil Association would resist hydroponics, but if the solutions used were organically derived what is the issue? We had the Riverford soil grown fruit and actually they were no better tasting than local small farm strawberries. Having applied great organic skill to fantastic effect why not deliver a new concept?

  4. Can one really do a proper scientific appraisal of soil/hydroponic fruits be done when there are so many variables involved, not least the strawberry variety? Not to mention personal tastes!

    1. Soil organisms are in symbiotic relationship with plant roots helping to source nutrients that the plant needs. They are able to provide mineral compounds that are both soluble and insoluble. One suggestion is that hydroponics are only able to provide soluble nutrients.


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