Most crops are running behind in the UK due the weather earlier in the year. The UK experienced one of the coldest Aprils and wettest Mays on record for years. There has also been a lot of frost damage across Europe too – affecting stone fruit production in particular as the frosts hit during the blossoming period.
At Chambers a fruit growing company based in Kent, they managed to escape damage but because of the cold weather the plants didn’t experience the normal growing conditions that they needed, which delayed the usual production process. As a result, the traditional start dates for each crop have been pushed back.
“All of our crops – strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries – are running about 2-3 weeks later than last year, and 1-2 weeks later than in 2019,” explains James Miller, Commercial Director at Chambers.
“As it stands now, the volume that we are picking today we would have been picking 14 days ago during a normal season. Luckily for Chambers, our cooling and packing facilities are located on our farms, so within a few hours everything is hand-picked, straight into the cool chain and out for delivery to the customers. We supply millions of UK-grown raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries through to December, weather permitting.”
According to James the sizes are fairly average this year, so there will not be much difference compared with last year. Apart from cherries, which seem to be a bit bigger in size this year, with great flavour.
“For berries, eating quality is excellent as usual, and everything is looking good at the moment. The fruit has been colouring up nicely. The cooler weather this spring has helped the blueberry crop, as it encouraged active pollination by our resident bees (Chambers has around 1,100 bee hives and we work with local beekeepers too). The blueberry plants are loaded with fruit, and we're hopeful for good sizes, quality and plenty of volume this season.”
The Spanish soft fruit season finished and there was a gap in supply before UK availability kicked in this year. Retailers’ sales and promotional plans have had to change to accommodate the later UK crop because the fruit has not been available as it normally would. Plans had to change in line with what has been available.
“On the plus side, normally there are no UK-grown strawberries available during Wimbledon because it coincides with a natural dip in supply. But this year there seems to have been sufficient volume for one of the first times in years.
“As for the berries that we export overseas; domestic production on the Continent has been delayed also, and their season traditionally starts later than the UK. So there has been a demand requirement on the export market that we have been able to fulfil. The delay to both harvests has worked out well for our exports in that sense.”
“The sun is the biggest sales person for soft fruit! Yet, as mentioned earlier, we have experienced weather more typical of autumn recently, plus consumers have still been living under Covid-19 restrictions. So, whereas we’d all usually get really excited about eating berries at this time of year, it's been a bit peculiar in 2021. Plus Andy Murray didn't last very long in Wimbledon! At the moment, soft fruit demand is strong but steady. We anticipate that demand will improve as we move further into the summer and the temperature rises.”
In 2019 Chambers launched a new food preparation business, The Fruitery, which was going very well. The lockdown meant that sales in this sector of the industry fell as people stayed at home, but James said it is picking up again.
“Demand is still sluggish because the ‘food-to-go’ market is only just starting to re-open in the UK. Although demand has picked up for food-to-go items it’s still not at the same level as before considering that life is not completely back to normal for consumers. The hope is that that market will grow when more offices open and travel picks up nationwide (via train journeys etc.).”
Retail sales of Chambers’ fresh fruit have been strong. During the various lockdowns people were eating and snacking on more good food at home, especially nutritious fruit like berries. They were buying larger packs of soft fruit to feed the family at home and/or to treat themselves too. In fact, the larger packs are becoming a mainstay across the soft fruit range.
Chambers exports fresh fruit to the Middle East, and northern Europe (France, Germany, and Holland). The company is much more focused on the UK market than exports, however.
“The only change to our European exports this year is the logistical challenge posed by Brexit but we are exporting nonetheless. In fact, we have overcome a lot of the administration obstacles by setting ourselves up on the PHEATS scheme, which is a trade facilitation scheme for the exports of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers to the European Union (EU) and Northern Ireland (NI). As a registered PHEATS member, we can apply online for our own phytosanitary certifications, rather than waiting for a Plant Health and Seed Inspector to visit and undertake checks. This means we can be quicker, we can react better, and we can be a bit more flexible with regards to the market conditions and our customers’ requirements.”
Chambers also grows berries in Europe to ensure a 52-week offer for their UK customers. At the moment, they are in the process of sending Yana raspberry plants from the UK farms to their Spanish operation to enable them to grow this variety domestically. The fruit produced by those plants will then be supplied back into the UK to maintain our volume year-round. The Yana raspberry is going well in the UK this year; it produces good sizes and flavour, so to have this variety available consistently through the UK winter time too is a bonus for the retail customers.
In other news, last month Chambers’ Managing Director Tim Chambers announced the promotion of Vicky Rye from Finance Director to Group CEO, and Salih Hodzhov from Production Director to Group COO.
Tim Chambers: ”As our business continues to grow, we recognise the importance of implementing the right operational structure to effectively manage the next stage of our 5-year strategy. In addition to their new roles, Vicky and Salih will retain their existing departmental responsibilities, in turn giving our existing personnel the opportunity to develop themselves into the future leaders of our business.”