DEMAND FOR British strawberries has soared in recent weeks and challenges facing growers over finding pickers for the season appear to be diminishing.

In what would have been the start of Wimbledon fortnight, where the iconic image of strawberries and cream would usually frequent our screens, the horticulture industry doesn’t appear to be marred by this significant loss in the nation's calendar.

“Although the hospitality sector and Wimbledon particularly is important in keeping strawberries front of mind and giving us great PR, the actual volume taken compared to the value sold by retailers is relatively small,” explained the chairman of British Summer Fruits, Nick Marston.

“The total production of strawberries in the UK through June and July is about four to five thousand tonnes a week and 98% are sold through supermarkets and independent retailers.”

New figures from market analyst Kantar show demand for strawberries was up by 19.85% in the four weeks leading up to June 14.

Mr Marston speculated that these ‘buoyant sales’ could be down to the recent sunny spell and more people living, cooking, and eating at home during lockdown.

Earlier in the Spring, the UK’s horticulture industry was extremely concerned about the approaching harvest season and finding an available workforce given border restrictions induced by lockdown.

However, recent moves be the government to relax border restrictions have meant that seasonal workers from outwith the UK have been able to travel over in time for the harvest season to fall in to full swing.

“At the end of March, we were seriously worried as an industry, but with the relaxation of land borders and the reintroduction of many flights, there are lots of workers now coming through,” continued Mr Marston. “Most signed contracts in the Autumn to come here this year.

“Most farms are seeing 70 to 80% of those that they expected coming through. The ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign has been great, those workers who have worked on farms have enjoyed it, settled in and made a really valuable contribution.”

Despite the huge interest from the British public to help with the harvest effort, Mr Marston stressed that in the years to come – which may see rising levels of unemployment with the recession – the industry cannot solely rely on city dwellers filling these roles.

“It is really important that we’re not deflected by the recession and the potential for unemployment as the long-term history of people who are unemployed in the cities coming and working on farms, is that they just don’t,” he stressed.

“We must not be deflected from the critical need for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers permit scheme for next year, we need 70,000 visas for people coming out with the UK and I think we’ll need every one of those quite frankly.

“The numbers of people who will end up working fulltime throughout our season who are UK citizens will be very small, it is a valuable contribution but not going to solve horticulture's problem,” he concluded.