Commercial Strawberry Production in Yorkshire. Lindsay Hulme, Northern Branch.

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
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
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
It’s cropping time. Foreign workers hand picking the crop which is worked over many times
during the season.