Photographs by Rob Haining

WITH PUBLIC interest in buying local at an all-time high, soft fruit growers are urging consumers to add homegrown blueberries to their shopping baskets.

Scotland has become a nation of blueberry lovers in recent years, but with so many competitors in the market, Scottish growers are trying to drum home the message that shoppers should choose local punnets whilst the season is in full-swing.

Blueberries may still be a relatively new kid on the block, but demand has skyrocketed in the past 20 years and they are enjoyed year-round as a choice breakfast accompaniment or snack.

Ross Mitchell, Aberdeenshire

The east coast of Scotland provides the perfect conditions for blueberry production, with its long summer days and cooler climate. At Castleton Farm in the Howe of the Mearns, Aberdeenshire, Ross Mitchell and his family run a successful soft fruit operation, growing 180 acres of blueberries, 178 acres of strawberries, 40 acres of cherries, 30 acres of raspberries and two acres of blackberries – all under polytunnels.

The SF paid a visit to the farm to get an insight into the blueberry production process during the peak of the Scottish harvest.

“All blueberry bushes are planted and pruned by hand,” said Mr Mitchell, explaining that the process is highly labour intensive from start to finish. “It takes three years for a blueberry bush to reach full maturity but during that time there is a lot of pruning, feeding, spraying and training of branches before you can begin to think about picking.”

The Scottish Farmer:

The optical grader in action at Castleton

The harvesting process is also done by hand, but unlike strawberry or raspberry picking which involves picking directly into punnets, the blueberries are picked in bulk loads to increase efficiency and are then later sorted by a special machine.

“We purchased an optical grader around two years ago which has proved to be a fantastic investment,” continued Mr Mitchell. “The machine takes around 40 photographs of each individual blueberry and grades them by size, colour and firmness and removes any with defects.”

He added that using the machine as opposed to relying on pickers grading blueberries by hand has seen productivity improve by 30%.

“Using the machine has allowed us to improve both the consistency and quality of our product and helps to better determine outgrades.”

The outgrades are the blueberries which don’t meet the strict supermarket standards but are good enough for the wholesale market or can be frozen for processing, for items such as jams, juices, and flavouring. Mr Mitchell explained that the real dregs of produce go to an Anaerobic Digestion plant – ensuring that no stock goes to waste.

In the packhouse, every pallet of blueberries is quality control checked and marked with a bar code which allows consumers to trace the product back to the farm. All pallets are then transferred to a blast chiller to remove the field heat, before being placed in a fridge before entering the packing line. Everything is then packed according to specific retail orders.

The Scottish Farmer:

Inside the processing plant

The major retailers which Castleton Farm work with are Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose. They also supply Scotmids, Spars, local butchers and sell punnets in their own farm shop.

Only 1% of their fruit is sold overseas and all produce is sold through cooperative Berry Gardens, which is the biggest berry marketing coop in the UK.

Market Competition

“We produce about 400 tonnes of blueberries yearly which equates to around 2.5 million punnets,” said Mr Mitchell. “However, consumer demand outstrips supply with over 1000 tonnes of blueberries being purchased every week. Current UK production only meets 30% of demand which is why there is a need to import such a huge volume of berries.”

He accepted that there will be points of the year where UK production of blueberries has ended but urged shoppers to choose local blueberries during the British season.

“Blueberries are a fantastic versatile fruit which are enjoyed year-round but when our season starts here in Scotland in July, I would implore the public to choose local blueberries until our seasons ends in October.

The Scottish Farmer:

Fresh from the field and on to your plate in a handful of days

“We are producing fresh berries straight on to consumer plates, whereas a lot of the produce being flown in or transported across sea will be stored for up to three weeks before hitting supermarket shelves. Nothing beats fresh, local blueberries during the height of the season and our cool climate and long summer days here in the north-east provides the perfect growing conditions to produce this delicious fruit.”

15 years ago, Castleton Farm made the decision to add blueberries to their operation, spotting a gap in the market between where the Northern Hemisphere stopped production in August and the Southern Hemisphere kicked off their season in Mid-October.

Mr Mitchell explained: “We noticed a lucrative gap in the blueberry market and soon everyone and their dog was trying to fill it. We are very competitive at this time of year with the likes of Peru and South Africa but the message that needs to be delivered is that consumers should be choosing British blueberries whilst we are in season.

“It is hard enough competing with foreign imports with many growers using cheaper labour and ultimately having lower production costs. However, consumers are becoming more interested in the carbon footprint of food and we hope this will drive themto choose local blueberries when it is on their doorstep, over fruit transported for weeks in cold stores from thousands of miles away.”

Soft Fruit Labour

Blueberry picking requires a huge amount of labour and the industry is still a long way off replacing pickers with machines. At Castleton, Mr Mitchell will have anywhere between 550 and 600 people picking fruit at peak times and only a handful are locals.

The Scottish Farmer:

Blueberry picking is a labour intensive process

He is hopeful that he has enough pickers lined up for the rest of the season but stressed that EU labour is drying up and that sourcing new pickers from outwith the EU through the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is going to become vital: “We have been very reliant on the SAWS scheme this year but we are still lobbying hard for it to be expanded beyond 10,000 before January or we might struggle to meet demands next year,” he conceded, adding that even with the SAWS scheme, workers are only here for a five month permit which doesn’t cover the length of his picking season which begins at the end of March and runs to early December.

Soft fruit growing is a long-term game, so despite the uncertainties, Mr Mitchell is already planning ahead and has high hopes to improve his blueberry offering: “We have already started planting new varieties which we hope will improve both flavour and shelf life. We want to make sure our customers love the taste of our blueberries and a longer shelf life and firmer fruit that lasts will give that pop when they eat it and help us stand out from competitors,” he continued.

“Strawberries have long been seen as the historic British summer fruit and with blueberries a relative newcomer to Scotland, people don’t recognise when we’re in season. Retailers don’t sell our story enough and our packaging is the same as imported blueberries which can be confusing.

“There is a lot to be said for this amazing fruit which is still the number one superfood in the UK offering huge health properties and snacking capabilities and they are grown here on our doorstep – we need to start shouting this from the rooftops,” he concluded.

The Scottish Farmer:

Ross Mitchell has started planting different varieties of blueberries to improve shelf life and firmness

Neil Thomson, Scottish Borders

Neil Thomson of Caverton Mill in the Scottish Borders diversified into blueberries four years ago at an opportune time, when demand for this trendy superfood was on the rise.

Farming in partnership with his brother Keith, they keep beef cattle, pigs on a bed and breakfast basis, 220 acres of vegetables and nine acres of blueberries – which he told The SF is still very much in it its infancy.

“I have been growing vegetables for over 30 years – which is very labour intensive – and felt I already had the skills to work with lots of people, so it felt like a natural step moving into blueberries which requires a lot of pickers.

“Keith and I also felt we needed to get away from cereals as we are not producing four tonnes an acre in the Borders like farmers in other parts of the country and we wanted to change pace from the hard work that’s involved,” he continued.

“We saw blueberries as an up and coming soft fruit. They were and are very much on trend with all the health properties they pack, and we felt strawberries were already a very mature market to enter.”

It has not been the smooth journey Mr Thomson had hoped as his polytunnels sustained some severe damage during the ‘beast from the east’ storm in 2018.

“I have had some serious setbacks with the weather which is a real challenge and have had to manage pressure from aphids. Initially we also struggled to source labour to look after polytunnels as there isn’t the expertise in this area, but we have been on a steep learning curve and have ironed out a lot of the challenges which will help longer-term.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Blueberries are grown under polytunnels but can still be vulnerable to the weather

He has been working closely with Angus Soft Fruits which he supplies his fruit too and emphasised how fortunate he has been to receive their support throughout his whole journey.

“I am indebted to the expertise I have had from the agronomy team at Angus Soft Fruits and other growers across Scotland, who have offered advice on technical issues. If anything, it has shown me how imperative it is as a soft fruit grower to be part of a cooperative to sell your product.”

Demand for his blueberries has been strong and although most of his fruit is sold through the cooperative, some goes to local farm shops and he has had a good reaction from the locality

“It has been really heartening to see the local appetite for good quality, home-grown produce. People have said they are blown away by the quality and taste of our blueberries compared to fruit which has been stored and transported overseas,” he reported.

“it is so important that we promote the benefits of blueberries grown on our doorstep. Not only does it mean no food miles, but it also ensures that what customers are buying is fruit grown to the highest possible standard.”

Mr Thomson hopes that blueberries will one day become a major part of his farming operation but for now it is about consolidating what he is doing, and thoughts of expanding are on the back burner for a wee while yet.

James Porter, Carnoustie

James Porter of East Scryne Farm in Carnoustie grows around 70 acres of strawberries – all table top – and eight acres of blackberries, but five years ago added 20 acres of blueberries to his operation.

“We decided to diversify into blueberries because their main picking season is later in August and September when other crops are winding down and it provided another crop for labour to pick, to keep the season going,” said Mr Porter.

The Scottish Farmer:

Demand for blueberries continues to soar

He added that there was also a big growth in demand for blueberries and although they didn’t have the quick payback of strawberries, they provide more years of harvest per bush than strawberries which have to be replaced every three years.

Commenting on the volume of imported blueberries which share the marketplace during the British season he said: “There used to be a six week window where we would get a great price for blueberries between late August and mid-October – where we were one of the only places in the world harvesting – but now we are faced with stiff competition from South America, where countries like Peru can ship blueberries cheaply and at a fraction of our labour costs.”

He explained that this has driven down the price of blueberries during the peak of the UK season – prompting some push-back from the domestic industry seeking a premium for homegrown.

“Angus Soft Fruits has been in talks with supermarkets about the costs of production and underlining why that extra price needs to be there,” said Mr Porter. “We can try and improve our efficiency a bit, but it is extremely tight. Price for blueberries is not increasing as supermarkets know they can get enough supply from abroad which holds the price down. They are not prepared to pay more for UK blueberries over imports.

“Part of the problem is that there is not enough blueberries grown in the UK to meet demand, especially when people expect to eat them year round,” he explained.

“At our peak production we still only fulfil 40% of UK demand whereas with the likes of strawberries, there are six months in the year where they command the market.”

Mr Porter said that achieving a premium for British blueberries depended on the public recognising the difference between a product

which has sat in a container for a month compared to a freshly picked, homegrown crop that is on the shelf within days of picking.

“People don’t see blueberries as seasonal fruit,” he continued. “They have it for breakfast or pancakes 365 days a year. Unless we can work out a way to either harvest them more cheaply and or get a better price for homegrown produce then I don’t think the long-term future looks good for blueberries,” he concluded.