Spring sunshine brings the year’s first crop of Norfolk strawberries onto the market
After some cool and gloomy spring weather, the sunshine has finally ripened the first Norfolk strawberries of the season, which are now being picked at one of the UK's largest fruit growers.
They are a quintessential summer fruit, evoking images of tennis tournaments and sun-drenched garden parties.
However, some cool and gloomy spring weather in recent weeks has held back the ripening of the season's first crop of strawberries at Place UK in Tunstead, near Wroxham.
But now the characteristic splash of crimson has finally arrived among the plants in the poly-tunnels, prompting the start of a mammoth fruit-picking effort to get the crop onto supermarket shelves.
Managing director Tim Place said the company's picking date predictions were based on growing degree hours (GDH), the number of hours where the temperature is over 4.5 degrees.
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In the first 16 weeks of 2016, the figure for East Anglia was actually higher than last year, but it has dropped sharply in the last fortnight, just as the fruit was approaching its final ripening stage.
'We had a lot of GDH in the winter time when it was quite warm,' he said. 'Then the spring has been cooler than we hoped for, so what I expected to be an early season is now going to be an average season.'
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This week's crop was planted last August. Just before Christmas, the plants were covered with a fleece, and the polytunnels were added in March and April, which will stay until the end of June to protect from rain damage and mould.
To keep the supply line moving, more plants will be planted this week which have been kept in a cold store since the winter, and will crop in 60 days, to follow the existing crop at the beginning of July. After that, the company uses other varieties which will crop in August and September so it can supply the market all the way through to October.
Mr Place said the seasonal workforce of pickers had seen many changes in the last 40 years.
'We used to use UK staff from the city,' he said. 'A lot of people in Norwich will remember coming to pick on the farms We used to have 700 people come fruit-picking in the 1970s and 1980s at Costessey, St Faiths, Rackheath and Eaton.
'We used to try and surround Norwich with fruit farms to get the pickers. Now people are not into fruit-picking any more, so we are very lucky to have seasonal staff who come from eastern Europe to help with the harvest.'
Mr Place said the company's growth plans were based on a rising demand for healthy foods and fruit, with a 12.3pc growth in soft fruit sales reported last year.
'This has been driven by demand,' he said. 'People want to be healthy and they want this fruit so we want to keep growing it. Our challenge is to do it profitably. We have got to remain competitive, and it is a struggle with the rising wages, the water regulations and the loss of crop protection products.'
For more on Place UK's irrigation challenges – and many more farming features, opinions and analysis – see our 32-page Agricultural Review supplement in today's EDP.