The Great British strawberry crisis: Urgent plea to gorge as lockdown causes demand drop

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The cancellation of mass gatherings, from Wimbledon to weddings and other outdoor events, has seen the demand for UK-grown berries plummet. This could see a huge oversupply of the highly-perishable fruit, with tonnes rotting instead of being eaten. Wimbledon had been due to begin on June 29 — at last year’s event, tennis fans ate 33 tonnes of strawberries.

Hugh Lowe Farms in Mereworth normally supplies the tennis tournament.

Owner and director Marion Regan told to the Oxford Farming Conference Podcast: “The Wimbledon fortnight is traditionally the peak of the English strawberry season.

“But we’re actually picking fruit from April all the way through to November.

“There are not many adjustments we can make, we’re sort of pretty committed to that crop now. It’s planted and it’s there.

“I’m hoping everyone will think ‘gosh it’s high summer, let’s eat plenty of strawberries’ and will be able to find other outlets for it.”

In 2018 the UK produced 132,000 tonnes of strawberries, up by a quarter from a decade earlier.

Raspberry production was 15,000. In a normal year, the country also imports additional berries to meet demand.

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The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said it was working with industry to “find alternative routes for fruit to get into the supply chain” and that it would monitor the situation “to assess whether further intervention is required to support growers”.

The UK-wide lockdown has already let to a glut of milk and dairy products, as cafes and restaurants closed their doors. For strawberries, there is even greater urgency for Britons to eat more, as they are highly perishable.

British Summer Fruits, a trade body, said it would double its marketing and public relations spend in 2020 to “make sure we have fresh British berries in front of mind for customers”.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, added: “It’s not just Wimbledon, it’s all the big sporting events. Formula One, cricket Test matches, football, they are huge outside events and all are cancelled.

“For caterers and the wholesale trade, that market has just gone.”

Elaine Clarke, of Manor Farm Fruits in Staffordshire, has set up a “strawberry drive-through” at her farm in a bid to sell more fruit, enabling customers to buy fruit without leaving their car.

She normally sells 1m punnets to customers each year.

She told the Financial Times: “Fruit is quite an emotive purchase, with families going around shopping together, ‘Let’s have some strawberries’ . . . With the restrictions in supermarkets, it’s quite a different way of shopping now.”

Farmers have also struggled with recruitment after the coronavirus prevented travel by many eastern European workers, who normally come to the UK to pick the crop. This, combined with social distancing measures, have seen their costs grow.

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