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UK: Malling Centenary vs Elsanta

Malling™ Centenary strawberries have become widely adopted by growers in just a few years. Satisfying consumers, retailers and growers is a difficult task but the strawberry breeding team at NIAB EMR claim to have made a breakthrough in terms of fruit quality and yield in comparison with Elsanta.

Originally selected in 2006 and formerly identified as EM1764, Malling™ Centenary was named to celebrate the excellence of fruit research at East Malling over the previous hundred years. Many are predicting it will take over from Elsanta and Sonata as the primary June-bearer variety chosen by UK growers. Since its commercial release in 2013, demand for plants has been staggering with annual plant production rising from a few hundred thousand to in excess of 40 million.

Brix and shelf-life scores have been similar to Elsanta but some growers have claimed the berries of Malling™ Centenary appear to retain their gloss and shine better after going into the cold chain on the way to the supermarket shelves. These fruit quality characteristics are impressive but it is fruit size and yield of Class 1 fruit that really sets it apart. Across all trials at NIAB EMR Malling™ Centenary showed good fruit size (average 76% large) and % Class 1 (average 93%). In the AHDB Horticulture-funded substrate grown strawberry variety trial (SF 128), it produced the highest 60-day Class 1 yield of all varieties tested, including 22% more than Elsanta. Malling™ Centenary produced a very high percentage of Class 1 fruit, with 63% of this being large (35-45mm) sized berries compared to 43% for Elsanta.

Reducing picking costs
Of all its attributes it is the reduction in picking costs that makes growing Malling™ Centenary so attractive to growers. The ‘perfect storm’ is already with us as uncertainties over seasonal labour availability post the Referendum Brexit vote, the steep increase in the living wage and discounters keeping strawberry prices low have all conspired to make any savings in picking costs vitally important. Labour expert and Commercial Controller at Asplins P.O. Ltd, Chris Rose says, “Malling™ Centenary is proving tremendously popular because at a time when the industry is struggling with labour costs and availability, it picks 20% to 25% faster than other June bearers like Elsanta and Sonata.” Chris considers that both berry size and weight (“it’s a denser berry”) contribute to this effect. He continues, “Total yields are comparable to Elsanta but the % total Class 1 is far higher”.

Glasshouse grower Peter Overvoorde at Premier Plants near Hull, thinks that the real advantage of Malling™ Centenary in saving picking costs is that pickers have fewer decisions to make. As many are grown near or at Class 1 pickers can go much faster. Peter thinks this has nearly doubled picking speeds. “With the increase in the National Living Wage we can’t carry on using varieties with too many decisions to make whether a berry is perfect or goes into the bin.” According to Peter for traditional early production in heated glass, growers have had to tolerate the fact that “with growing Elsanta you’ll end up with 10 to 20% of small, Class II with misshapes and scarred fruit.” In his first trial of Malling™ Centenary Peter was delighted with “the fantastic shape and only 3% Class II”.

Grower experience under glass
In 2016 Peter Overvoorde grew 5 acres of Malling™ Centenary and 5 acres of Elsanta with production from April until November assisted by his biomass boiler on this ex-tomato nursery. This year it was particularly important to keep going until late November as he wanted to have plenty of Malling™ Centenary berries for his daughters’ wedding. “This is a magnificent variety in terms of quality” says Peter, “for a grower it is one of the most exciting varieties for years. However, Elsanta has been grown for 34 years and it has survived so long because we understand how to grow it, so it will not be easy to knock it off its perch.”

For his main customer M&S, who like bigger fruit, Peter has found that the shape, size and eating quality of Malling™ Centenary over the whole year has always delivered. “It ticks all the boxes: it looks fantastic, its glossy appearance, shelf life, firm berries, which are never hollow, deliver just what the customer wants and the magnificent flavour has been maintained throughout the year at weekly customer tastings”. Peter has found that the whole crop of Malling™ Centenary can be sold for premium prices. “For M&S we have a market for our large ‘king berries’ which attract premium prices”. Towards the end of the crop he can also market his small Malling™ Centenary berries as ‘mini berries’ for M&S at a premium, as they are such a pretty heart shape, whereas Elsanta at this stage of cropping produces fruit only suitable for basics ranges. The results so far have encouraged Peter to decide that for 2017 the whole 10 acres of his glass production will be planted with Malling™ Centenary.

Chris Batchelor at Wallings Nursery, Ardleigh near Colchester grows 3 hectares of strawberries under glass. The aim is to hit the premium prices in April and May then switch to Spanish tunnels for his summer crop and then he plants new single crown tray plants in the first week of August to give an autumn crop of June bearers from mid-September until early December and then another crop the following spring after the plants have had six weeks of cold units when the heating is turned off in December and January. The nursery has specialised in growing Sonata so it will be difficult to persuade Chris and the staff to swap to a new variety.

Wallings was one of the first to grow Malling™ Centenary as the nursery is a J Sainsbury’s supplier and the retailer had an exclusive on the variety for the first two years after launch. However, Chris is still a bit cautious with his enthusiasm for the variety with just half an acre down to it this year and the same planned for next year. He admits this is partly due to difficulties in obtaining enough quality plant material. “For fruit quality and consistency it is ahead of any other June bearer”, says Chris. “Malling™ Centenary is out in front of Elsanta and Sonata for Brix levels, shape and ‘eatability’ plus it has lovely early texture and of course good size. It also hangs on the plant later than Sonata." added Chris. One downside that Chris has found Malling™ Centenary more prone to mildew than Sonata needing more attention to detail to keep control of the fungus.
Although the senior supervisor on the nursery Rado Praefort particularly likes the fruit firmness of Malling™ Centenary and the flavour, he and all the pickers prefer Sonata from the picking point of view because Malling™ Centenary needs a pinch and twist action which is more difficult and causes sore fingers. On the nursery the Sonata is picked every day but Malling™ Centenary only every two days.

Tunnel cropping
Tunnel grower Henry Duncalfe of H&H Duncalfe Ltd, Wisbech, Cambs., considers that Malling™ Centenary represents a step forward in terms of plant breeding. He says “I can remember the impact of Elsanta in terms of improved quality and yield thirty years or so ago and this is of the same magnitude. Malling™ Centenary delivers on all fronts – picking speeds, appearance, shelf life and customer uptake has been marvellous. Everybody on the High Street is looking for it.” Henry admits that growers are still in the phase of working out exactly what suits the variety best in terms of growing it to reach its full potential. Despite this he is sufficiently confident that he is moving away from Vibrant and Sonata and over to Malling™ Centenary as his major June bearer variety.

Henry has grown both bare-root waiting bed plants of Malling™ Centenary planted in February or May and misted tips planted in August for cropping the following year. So far his initial results have been very encouraging delivering crops from early May until the end of June under tunnels. “We still have some fine tuning to do” admits Henry, “but that’s normal with a new variety.” Looking to the future he is delighted that the breeding programme at NIAB EMR has some more interesting June bearer and everbearer varieties to bring on after the undoubted success with Malling™ Centenary.
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