Commercial Strawberry Production in Yorkshire. Lindsay Hulme, Northern Branch. “Just to let you know your strawberries smell delicious” this is the walk by comments made by people using the footpaths which surround our farm. People are drawn to the strawberry which is now as much of a symbol of Wimbledon as the tennis ball or the rain. My Great grandfather moved up to Yorkshire from Wisbech in the early part of the last century. The depression had made it impossible for him to stay in the area so he decided to “Up sticks” and leave the area. His sister had a grocery shop in Yorkshire so he decided to head there. He purchased a farm in a Leeds suburb. Due to the fact that strawberry growing was in his blood he decided to start the ball rolling again and begin to cultivate them in Yorkshire. He supplied his sister’s shop and soon had a hawking round from which he sold his fruit and vegetables to the locals. My grandfather decided to go into the pick your own business; he purchased a farm in the next village in the early 50s. This pick your own business flourished and more and more acres where put down to the crop. By the late 80s his love affair with the fruit looked strained, a combination of lost crops due to weather and thefts by the public made him question further plantings of the crop. As the 90s came, as a company we decided that the best way forward was to come out of fruit production all together the high input costs made the PYO business very hard to justify. And lack of a guaranteed sale made the decision very easy. Roll forward 12 years, as a company we were approached by a marketing desk with a plan to ask us to start growing strawberries again. Their argument was simple that as we where “Up north” we had a geographical location which allowed us to fit in between the two gluts of fruit which were supplied by Kent and Scotland. So we decided to go ahead with the venture, Little did we know that everything we knew about growing strawberries had to be thrown away and a new method of growing the crop had been adopted. As a company we were used to growing the crop in a matted row format. The new way to grow the crop was to form a bed which was then covered by plastic mulch. Simple or so we thought; 25 different variances of colour and pattern where the choices presented to us. These ranged from black to white on black and also black and white stripes. The range of different plastics can be used to manipulate the crop by increasing or decreasing the temperature of the soil. When we laid the mulch down an irrigation system was formed into the bed. This was done in the form of a T Tape. This tape expands under pressure and emits water from small drippers. This allows the water and the feed to be put exactly where it is needed; by the roots. The next problem we faced is the cleaning of the water. We have pumping rights from a local river. This had to be pumped into a sand filter which removed all the large particles from the water. If these where allowed to enter the tape system they would simply block up the small emitters. Once the water leaves the sand filter nitric acid is added to the water this alters the ph of the water which makes the water more manageable. This is monitored we call it EC which we can raise or fall dependent on field and variety. A feed is then added to the water which is mixed in a 1000 litre IBC; these are changed as to what stage the crop is at. The four main stages are flowering, fruit initiation, fruiting and post fruiting. The beds are made up in the autumn; Basamid is added to the soil and worked into the bed. The plastic is then laid over the top of the bed to create a seal. In the early days we used methyl bromide. This was a terrible to deal with and to be honest I am glad that it is banned. It was terrible to walk through the fields and to see all the worms and bugs dead, something I think we are well shut of. The beds are left over the winter for the basamid to sterilise the soil. This is done for the reasons that we have the soil tested for Verticlium wilt which is a terrible problem within the strawberry industry. In year 1 the plants are healthy and strong but in year two big patches begin to die off. If a crown is removed and cut open then there are rings within the crown and the centre becomes brown. This restricts the amount of water and feed that the plant can take up and the plant simply collapses. In the spring the beds are slit with a hole maker. This is a tractor mounted machine which has blades on a roller. This is then driven on the bed to cut holes for the plants. On each bed are two rows of slits which are 16” apart. The distance between the plants can be varied as for different varieties. Once the holes are cut the beds are left for two weeks to allow the gas to escape. This stage is what is known as venting. The plants arrive and are usually cold stored plants. We use English and Dutch plant raisers. The plants when purchased are available in sizes which are graded. The bigger the plant the bigger the yield potential. This is reflected in the price. In the early days we grew Elsanta, Florence and Symphony. The latter two varieties where a growers dream, high yields, low input and high disease and pest resistance. Unfortunately they were delisted by all the major supermarkets. When choosing what to grow we have to look at the supermarket acceptability list, we can’t simply grow what we want as we have to sell the product at the end. The plants in year one are planted as sixty day plants. This means that you can manipulate when the fruit will come with regards to planting date. If you have some year 2 plants these will fruit and then you can follow with the same variety which has been planted that year. These plants will then come at the same time as the others planting in year two. However you have ripped out the two year olds and replanted them in the spring and so the cycle continues. Once we had become accustomed to this system, we had to ensure that we could pick the crop. The English Summers have been variable to say the least. The only route we could go down was to get poly tunnels. The legs are drilled into the soil. A hoop is the placed on the legs; the hoops are 8.2 metres wide. Plastic is then pulled over the hoops and tied down with ropes and pulled tight. This is then tied down to hold the skin of the tunnel tight. For the early season we use crop fleeces to cover the crop this helps the temperature to be raised and to bring the crop forward. We use various thickness of crop cover to manipulate the time in which the crop will fruit. Once the tunnels are up we then purchase hives of bumble bees to pollinate the strawberries. We have used honey bees before however they have their draw backs. The honey bees only work when the temperature is 8 c and there is a certain light intensity. The honey bees are very grumpy and sting you quite a lot. The bumble bees are very methodical, they work across the fields as opposed to random, they come out when it is cold and when it is wet, they are the perfect partner. When spraying the crop we use a high clearance tractor with an air assisted sprayer. The sprayer uses a fan to move all the leaves to ensure good coverage. We are now using allot of Kopert products which are biological products which not only stop the problems but they also prevent further attacks. In recent years we have had problems with vine weevil which have attacked our crops. We now use a product called nematodes these are micro organisms which are put into the irrigation system. The nematode eat the larve of the weevil in the soil from inside out (it couldn’t happen to a nicer thing) When the staff pick the crop they use sledges to push along the rows. This is to place any waste in to remove it from the plant. The rest of fruit is then picked into class 1 or two punnets dependent on the supermarket specs. The strawberries are taken to the blast chiller to remove the field heat. The supermarket orders come later that day and the strawberries are packed fresh every day. The punnets are now heat sealed with a film lid. We used push on lids before but the supermarkets now want heat sealed lids. This prevents tampering in store and also reduces plastic waste. Once the crop has finished then we top the crops. The topper uses suction to lift the runners and remove the foliage. This is shredded and put on the floor of the row. A week later any remaining runners are cut off. At this point depending on variety we also do some crop thinning. The crowns are thinned if you have too many crowns then the fruit will be small the following year. The tunnels are taken down for the winter. We simply remove the plastic from the tunnel and wrap it up. The structure remains intact for the winter. On the farm we now not only grow June bearers we grow ever bearers which produce fruit until October. The June varieties give the entire crop in a 3 week period. The Ever bearers give their yield over 10-12 weeks. This year we have found a product which has really helped for the drought season. A water spreader was put into the water tank which helped spread the water in the soil. Due to the ground being dry the water cut through the soils and went straight down. The water spreader caused the water to spread the full width of the bed. The Hortiwet is an excellent product and helped us to place water and feed right next to the roots. This year we are now moving on again and we are moving on to table top production where all our crops will be out of the ground. But that’s another story! Field grown “sonata” under covers, this helps to bring the crop forward by a couple of weeks, and keeps the fruit dry to prevent rotting when ripe. Close up of same crop. These are one year old plants carrying their first crop. Under the black polythene covers are two drip /seep hose pipes down each side of the row to water and if necessary, feed the plants. Cardboard box “bee hives”, bought in, and placed in the tunnels to help pollination. Another shot of the same crop in full flower. Outdoor crop of “Florence”, an “everbearer” or repeat cropping variety. Same ground protection, i.e. black polythene over rows with straw in between to protect the crop. Strong plants with plenty of fruits. Note also new runners which will be taken off the parent plants. It’s cropping time. Foreign workers hand picking the crop which is worked over many times during the season.
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