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30 years of Angus Soft Fruit

‘Run your business like you are going to run it for 100 years’

Angus Soft Fruits, once a small farming operation consisting of three growers in the East of Scotland is now celebrating 30 years. The company now has growers and/or growing partners in England, Spain, Morocco and Chile as well as a breeding program based in Evesham. The main berries grown are strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries.

FreshPlaza caught up with East Seaton Farm owners Lochy and Debbie Porter at their farm in Arbroath, Scotland.

Lochy: "My dad started growing strawberries in 1964 for the wholesale market and 30 years later in 1994 Debbie and I started our business, it was the year we got married."

Debbie: "He offered me a job and I turned him down, then he asked me to marry him, and I said yes."

Lochy: "There was fruit being planted here while I was at university, and I used to come down and oversee it. I later became a tenant here. We were using new techniques and new ways of growing fruit, coldstore plants, trickle irrigation and all polystyrene beds. I would go to Kent with my father, in my university years and watch what they were doing. So that was in 1991, we had about five acres and then it just developed from there. I was thinking we needed to really get closer to the market. At the time there were huge conglomerates that were supplying the retailers with many different types of produce. I spoke to my father and his cousin James Gray and said we need to change, shake it up a bit and deal directly with our customers, the retailers. And so, we went to see Marks and Spencer's who we were supplying in the early 90s and said we would like to supply them directly.

"This gave us a great opportunity to start Angus Soft fruit in 1994 and it just went from there.
Even at that time there was a big demand for fruit in the UK, back then England supplied the markets in May and June and the Scottish berries came in July and August but, then we developed new techniques and new varieties to stretch our season."

Major changes

There have been massive changes in the soft fruit industry over the years, in Scotland we all grew up picking berries in the school holidays, the berries were planted in the open ground with a bit of straw in between. Now it is all done in poly tunnels and tabletops.

Lochy: "It has been a massive investment; it has been industry wide. It had to be done to increase the quality and to have better pest control. There is also the fact you no longer must do crop rotation which increases area. It is all done in coir now."

Debbie: "The market has changed so much too, when we first started it was very much in its infancy and the supermarkets had maybe 40-50 different suppliers and were phoning everyone every day looking for supply, but if it rained, we would not have any supply for a few days. So, they said 'go and work how to solve this problem and have a consistent supply from May till September.' Then they said they wanted strawberries all year round, 'go and work out how to do that.' It has been market driven and the supermarkets have become bigger and bigger and more efficient. We were very lucky to start when we did and having that close contact meant we knew what they wanted and saw when things were changing, and we were able to respond quickly."

Lochy: "You must have as efficient a production as possible, but I think we have always tried to add value and have a point of difference and that again comes back to the breeding program and being in this part of world we have slower ripening and better tasting fruit. With our varieties we have looked at doing branded fruit. We have always tried to be innovative, looking ahead.

"Everyone has Spanish raspberries until the English crop comes, but we had a tunnel that could grow raspberries very early. We had the biggest share of raspberries by the 2nd week of June, normally you would not see Scottish raspberries until July. You must keep thinking ahead and innovating and thinking about what the customers want."

AVA™ Catalina


Lochy: "The source of labour has changed immensely since the 70s and 80s when you had mums who came along with the kids and picked the fruit in the holidays, this is how we grew up, driving the old berry busses around to get pickers from the streets of Arbroath. While this all sounds like great fun, in reality you had no reliability. That was how we started, but we moved very quickly to employing the Eastern Europeans, however at that time they travelled around and were not really committed to your farm. Then we started to talk to the government and get seasonal workers with work permits which made a big difference. By that time children were no longer allowed to pick fruit on farms anyway."

Debbie: "Legislation also changed, and we were no longer allowed to pay piece rate, it all had to be done on an hourly rate. We also started growing in tunnels and on really hot days our workers would have to start at 5am to avoid the worst of the heat. This would have been not possible for mothers and kids."

Then we had Brexit

Lochy: "We did manage to retain some of our Eastern European workforce who were able to get settled status, but of course they are getting older and you don't get new pre-settled status, also at that time we could go and source labour directly ourselves and that worked pretty well, but we can no longer do that as it is seen as being bonded to one farm and they don't like that. We want to have happy workers you know. We now get our workers from further afield. Also, many of our workers with pre-settled status have been here for many years are now in management roles."

Debbie: "We have been lucky that a big percent of our workers are returnees, and we can usually keep them here for the whole season."

Lochy: "Post-Brexit there was a lot of work for Russians, Romanians and Bulgarians, now we have a lot of people from Kazakhstan. Ideally, we would like them here for nine months, but they only get visas for six. There are only around 40,000 seasonal visas granted for the whole UK, but growers will need more as the pre-settled status drops away, the UK requirement for seasonal workers is around 70-80,000."


There is a lot going on with robotic pickers, but Lochy does not see it really happening for quite a few years yet.

Lochy: "There are lots of trials going on in the fields of robotics, but we are still a few years away from replacing our workforce with robots. Everyone wants everything to be mechanised and there is a push from the government, but if we mechanise everything then the population is going to be unemployed."

Debbie: "People come here to work, they pay their tax and National Insurance, we have around 800 workers at the peak of the season who all pay this. If you just put a robot to work then no one is contributing anymore and nothing is going into the central coffers to be spent on hospitals, schools, roads etc."

New premises in 2019

Debbie: "When we started up, we were working from a cupboard off the bedroom in the small cottage on the farm, we each had a desk and a filing cabinet, printer and fax machine. The printer would go all night printing labels. We eventually moved into the farmhouse and worked from a bedroom there, after that we moved the office to the cottage on the farm and had a couple of people working with us there, we tacked on a portacabin and just kept adding parts until it was a myriad of parts all joined together. In 2018 we decided it was not fit for purpose."

Lochy: "I was listening someone on a podcast and he said 'run your business like you are going to run it for 100 years', you have to do things within your financial limits, but it just seemed to me that it was time to have a bit more of a work friendly environment."

Debbie: "It really does make a huge difference working in a nice environment, the office is now a modern, open space with the kitchen, private spaces and enough toilets for everyone! We are no longer in a dark portacabin, tripping over boxes."

Lochy: "There is a big thing about working from home now, but we have a nice office, and it is not hard to commute here, not like the centre of London, we do have people further afield and have to manage that, but in general we want people to work from here."

Debbie: "During COVID we set everyone up at home and everything still got done, but things like future planning and discussing other things got brushed under the carpet."

Dutch office

Lochy: "We opened a Dutch office in 2018 which we had for four years, if you think something has a future then you go with, but when that changes you just stop it. We have an office in Huelva in Spain, so maybe it was just a bit of overlap having the two offices and the supply chain is getting shorter. The Dutch have great reputation for trading, but that is not what we were trying to do, it just made much more sense for us to be selling from Spain or Morocco, the supply chain just got smoother and if we want to pack something from Holland, we can still do that."

Who is the boss?

Debbie: "I am just prop! No, when we started the business, we worked together to run the business, as it has grown you know cannot do everything, but I still work with the team in the farm's office, not so much on the Angus Soft Fruits side. I am always here and like to know what is going on, but I am just back-room staff."

Lochy: "Debbie always has an opinion; she is very forthright and no shrinking violet. She also likes to meet celebrities when they come round, it is the only time you see her lost for words!"

Debbie: "I love our business because we have such a good product and I love what we have done. We have such a great team here and have had a lot of support from our growers, it is a bit corny but in the farming industry in Scotland everyone is related to each other or knows each other, and we are just like a big family. Often farmers are not very good at collaborating and discussing things or sharing ideas, but we have been really lucky to be involved with the people we are with. It has been hard work but a lot of fun along the way.

"My only regret is that we never kept a diary, you remember doing things and meeting people, but we did not record any of it. It is still fun looking back.

"The team at Angus has seen changes and additions over the years but there are many people who have here for a long, long time."

Lochy: "It helps when you have continuity, people grow up and move away or retire, but we like to keep a happy environment. We have had to be a bit more structured as the business has gotten bigger, but we make sure we keep good relationships with our team and have face to face meetings regularly with the ones who are not based here."

AVA™ Alicia


Lochy: "AVA™ is our Breeding Programme brand. Our journey began in 2003 with the groundbreaking release of our first AVA strawberry; the first UK grown premium strawberry variety. Since this landmark achievement we have continued to produce outstanding AVA varieties. These award-winning AVA berries are grown across the world to satisfy the demand of retailers in the United Kingdon, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. All varieties bred by the Angus Soft Fruits Breeding Programme are pre-fixed with our AVA™ trademark. This helps differentiate our premium selection of berries from other varieties.

"Good Natured Berries is our consumer berry brand. The most delicious, high-quality berries in eye catching packaging and strong sustainability credentials are available to consumers in the UK, Europe, the Middle East and now Asia. Grown in Tune with Mother Nature, they are truly a delicious and nutritious treat."

Exports to Middle East and Asia

Debbie: "Soft fruit is a difficult product to export due to a very short shelf life."

Lochy: "There are growers or growing organisations who are looking at exporting soft fruit to the Middle Eastern and Asian markets, but it is a difficult product to export. We already have Scottish fruit in the Middle East and in Asia, which was launched with a piper and bagpipes, it was our son, Gordon who looks after the export arm of the business. We are always looking for new markets, the UK retailers are great volume markets, so if we can get things on planes and get them out there then why not? The challenge has always been getting the varieties that will travel well. If you can work with airlines and distribution to get the supply chain right, then it can be a good market.

"We have developed the business to be able to produce fruit for international markets. We are efficient berry specialists that understand the challenges of international supply and are working to make this an even more streamlined process."

Major challenges

Lochy: "Cost of labour. The whole increase in inflation has been a challenge, not just for us but many businesses in the soft fruit sector and that is where there has been a bit of lagging in price increases from customers. When you see a 40% increase in labour costs over the last three years, labour is our biggest cost."

Debbie: "This is the difference between our products and some of the others out there. We need a lot of labour, so when that cost goes up by a small amount it has a huge impact on the business."

Lochy: "To date we have been able to keep a lid on prices, but it looks to me that there might be shortages coming and then it does not take much to reset prices. We want to have a long-term sustainable business; we need to have a decent living but that is it. The customer must be satisfied with what they are getting and so do we, it must be a sustainable model. We have a great product, we get good feedback from consumers, and we need to make sure we have the right systems in place to make it work. Run your business like you going to run it for a hundred years!"

Debbie: "Over the last 30 years we have invested and reinvested and grown the company and employed more people."

AVA™ Sofia

Breeding program

Lochy: "We started with Dave Griffiths who is now retired, Lucy Wilkins runs the project now, she has been with us for four years. The breeding program consists of strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. It is done in Evesham, but we have some trial raspberries up here too. Quite exiting ones, it is very hard to get better flavour than we have with our AVA™ Magnum strawberry but are always trying. We keep striving to be better. We have two fantastic new raspberry varieties, being launched commercially this year; AVA™ Monet and AVA™ Dali. So named because they are, "works of art!" These varieties, meticulously bred over years of trials and development, represent a significant breakthrough in raspberry cultivation, offering unparalleled quality, yield, and sustainability.

"Consumers are very concerned about shelf life so that is a major factor we look at. A variety also needs production to get it over the line, and it also needs taste. There are also different price categories, you always need to have a few different heads on when you are thinking about it. You are also considering the early and late seasons, and the country and environment where you are growing them."

The next 30 years

Debbie: "There are still so many opportunities out there which makes it exciting, even though there are challenges like the cost of labour, we have something special and lots of people who love our product and there are still markets to explore."

Lochy: "It has been an incredible 30 years. We have a dedicated team of Berry Specialists and new innovations for the future. Yes, it is good to look back, this has been my whole life, and hopefully for a bit longer."

For more information:
Jill Witheyman
Angus Soft Fruits
Mob.: +44 (0)7894 096123
Email: [email protected]