New Ribena berries are harvested as 20 years of climate research finally bears fruit
- Credit: Chris Hill
Norfolk fruit farmers are harvesting the first crop of Ribena berries bred to cope with the impact of climate change – the culmination of more than 20 years of research.
A new variety of blackcurrant, named Ben Lawers, is fruiting for the first time this year after being developed through a partnership between the James Hutton Institute in Scotland and Lucozade Ribena Suntory, which uses 90pc of Britain’s blackcurrants to make its popular fruit drink.
Blackcurrant bushes need a “winter chill” – an extended period of cold temperatures – in order to bear fruit the following summer, putting them at risk during warming winters.
Mark Buckingham, of Hill Fruit Farm in Swafield near North Walsham – one of six Ribena growers in Norfolk – started harvesting his first Ben Lawers berries this week.
The farmer, who previously worked for 15 years as a maths teacher and hockey coach at Gresham’s School in Holt, said the effects of a warming climate had become increasingly evident ever since he returned to the family farm following the death of his father Michael Buckingham in 2010.
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“I cannot emphasise enough that in the ten years since my father died, there has been perhaps one in three years where it has been cold enough for blackcurrants,” he said.
“I grew up on this farm and I have lived with blackcurrants my whole life. We would consistently grow good tonnages every year. Now if we have a warm winter we have considerably less crop than we would expect.
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“In the months from the beginning of October to the end of February the blackcurrants require a certain number of hours below 7C. All the varieties have different winter chilling requirements but on average they need 2,000 hours of that chilling time throughout the winter.
“This year we have only had 1,900 chilling hours here, but the Lawers only needs 1,500. As we move forward with these warmer winters we need a bit of help.
“Ribena have invested a huge amount of money in research and they have bred so many different varieties of blackcurrants. Very few of them make it to this stage where they can be purchased and put in the ground.
“It is a proper team effort. We are taking a risk in planting them, because we trust their judgement. They want great juice quality, and we want good yields and berries that are disease-resistant and climate-resistant, so these are providing for everyone.”
“The Lawers berries have huge potential – I don’t think I have ever seen a nicer-looking field of blackcurrants. The growth is staggering. We are very pleased with them.”
Lucozade Ribena Suntory said it has invested more than £10m in its work with the James Hutton Institute, including recent funding of £500,000 to continue its research into climate change which began two decades ago.
Harriet Prosser, an agronomist at Lucozade Ribena Suntory, said: “This year’s harvest sees farmers reaping the rewards as 20 years of research comes to fruition.
“Harvest is always the most exciting time of the year but this time around it promises to be doubly rewarding. This year’s weather has demonstrated why we need to be on the front foot in adapting to a changing climate.”
Blackcurrants have been bred at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland since 1956 and now account for around half of the blackcurrants grown in the world. Hutton varieties are all named after Scottish mountains and all have the “Ben” prefix.