Uncertain future for U.K.'s booming berry industry as Brexit looms

More News Top Stories
Uncertain future for U.K.'s booming berry industry as Brexit looms

Last year a successful campaign was carried out by the U.K. berry industry that culminated in retail sales topping £1 billion, but British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins says there are ‘real worries’ as Brexit looms. 

"In two years time we’ll be coming out of the EU, the biggest market in the world with 500 million people, 28 (soon to be) 27 countries and the U.K. has taken this decision," he said at the New York Produce Show’s Global Trade Symposium held last month in the Big Apple.

"There are lots of similarities between what the U.K. has done and what the U.S. has done in terms of moving away from the traditional pattern of trade."

He said 31,000 seasonal workers were employed in the soft fruit industry every year, with a large proportion coming from Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

"70% of these workers come back every year. There’s a disinclination now due to the Pound being devalued and the fact that they feel unwelcome which is a big problem to us," he said.

"The devaluation of sterling for our workers means their remittance back to their home countries is reduced and there is an anti-immigrant feeling in the U.K. which is really disappointing to see and experience."

Olins is busy lobbying government at the highest level to pass on the serious concerns in the soft fruit industry. But with no guarantees, no real idea of the detail of trade negotiations and nothing being certain, he is seriously concerned about the future once the U.K. officially leaves the EU.  

"The government, and I have had meetings at the highest level other than the Prime Minister, but they will not give us any assurances of where our labour is going to come from in two years time," he said.

"This is a real worry to our industry. One little bit of good news is that recently the Secretary of State did say she may consider seasonal workers, but we have absolutely no guarantees whatsoever.

"No labor, no industry. So all this good stuff may come to nought if we don’t have people to pick up crops and there’s acute uncertainty as a result."

Logistical nightmare

Britain does not export large quantities of berries but it does import high volumes from Spain. Right now there are no borders or tariffs, but all that would change under Brexit.

"There will be border controls and tariffs and the whole job of importing will become much more difficult and become a logistical nightmare," he said.

"If you imagine trying to bring in Californian strawberries across the states and having to stop at every single state to pay a tariff or have your product inspected, that’s what is going to happen to us. Whereas at the moment we can bring a truck of strawberries from Spain and there is no delay whatsoever.

"We get a fair amount of funding from Europe, about US$50 million to help our industry, and again, this could very well be curtailed. That money goes on capital projects, it doesn’t go on subsidising crops. The result of this money has meant that we have become very self-sufficient. These funds have been guaranteed until 2020 and after that who knows what’s going to happen."

Demonstrating just how successful the U.K. soft fruit industry is right now, in every £5 spent on fruit, more than £1 is spent on berries - with the category representing 22% of the basket, says Olins.

"We’ve created this virtuous circle and Brexit is without a doubt creating a great deal of uncertainty. And Trump’s policies on climate control, customs, unions and immigration could have a global effect and we are concerned about that," he says.

"We don’t know what they are but they could have an effect on us. Our business strategy is to stay focus, concentrate all of the time on the consumer, to innovate and not to get complacent."

Looking back at 2016

Olins goes through some of the reasons why BSF has created so much success, which include expanding the limited berry supply to year-round availability, growing the ‘superfood’ status of the big three - blueberries, strawberries and blackberries - and keeping nutritional and convenience credentials top-of-mind for health conscious consumers.

"First of all to run a year-round, 365-day campaign for berries, we don’t care where they come from, all we are there for is to promote and expand our category. We collect and disseminate crop data, so our members know exactly by crop, by customer in week two, what happened in week one.

"In value our business has improved from £450 million per annum to over £1.2 billion in retail sales value. It’s been compound annual growth of over 8%, which is quite a story. Importantly tonnage has gone up as well. It’s not just value - people are eating more of our product which is very important."

Blueberry boost

The real growth and success story of the soft fruit industry is blueberries, explains Olins, as 15 years ago there were virtually no blueberries eaten in the U.K.

"It was very much an American product. My company introduced it and it has pretty much pushed the category. Strawberry is still growing but at a much slower rate, raspberries have stayed fairly static but now with new varieties it has suddenly taken off again and the blackberry is a little bit of the orphan of the category.

"The total eating of fruit is not that great, so who are the losers in this game? We set out, right from the word go, to be winners, we had to take business from other fruits. The big losers; apples, pears, bananas and grapes and we continue to take business from those categories.

"In terms of where the British berry market has gone, the growers in the U.K. have raised their game and met the challenge of this increasing market so even ten years ago they represented about 44% of the total and now they’re representing about the same so the market has grown and growers have grown with it."

In the outer season BSF import from Chile, Argentina, Peru and South Africa. As there are relatively small quantities of U.K.-grown blueberries, the big sources are Poland, Chile and Spain, whilst blackberries are grown in Spain, Mexico, the U.K. and the Netherlands.

"We set out to stimulate demand, we wanted a demand pull and a supply following up behind and not the other way around, and we have achieved that."


Photo: Ana Iacob Photography


Subscribe to our newsletter