Chris Moorhouse the fourth generation to farm at Bentley Grange since his great-grandfather arrived as a tenant in 1889, recalled his father Michael starting with strawberries in the late 1970s and how the growing of the crop has changed.
“Dad farmed with his two brothers, but it was always him who looked after the fruit husbandry. He started with strawberries during the pick-your-own boom and then began growing raspberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants.
“There has always been more demand for strawberries and that’s still the case today. We have about three acres down to fruit production and most of that is strawberries.
“It was the first real diversification from traditional farming and it established that mindset of having to make changes in order to survive to support three families.
“I changed our strawberry growing system from conventionally grown in the ground to growing under polytunnels about twelve years ago, which has helped me manage them a lot better, particularly as I now have so much more on my plate since my uncles retired.
“I use automatic irrigation that I can change from my computer without having to leave my desk and I can handle any spraying required pretty much at any time because the crop is covered. That means I can control disease better if I get bug attacks.”
Chris said that he finds looking after strawberries is similar to looking after livestock.
“You have to keep watching them and you’ve got to be absolutely on your game to make sure they have enough water and receive the right feed, as well as watching for problems. It’s all about paying attention to them.
“This year we have started with something new to help pollinate the crop. We are now using bumble bees that are sent in the post in a cardboard box, which acts as their hive. Advisers put me on to them. They get the nectar from the flowers that pollinates the crop to give you more fruit. The bumble bees then return to their cardboard hive.
“I’m also adding other beneficial insects through sachets of little mites that will attack the nasty things I don’t want affecting my strawberries. This type of approach is becoming more the norm because we are losing the chemicals that were previously used to do this job.”
Strawberries were once only available during June and July in the UK but with importation and freezing of the fruit, supermarkets stock them all year round. Chris believes there is nothing better than a fresh strawberry and he said that the sweetness comes from that moment when perfectly ripened.
“Strawberries are ripened by the sun and that is what develops that sweetness that we all enjoy. There’s a distinct difference in the taste between going out at 8 o’clock in the morning and tasting a strawberry when the sun is out later.
“You can try a strawberry from the same row when the sun is at its strongest and it will taste sweeter than when it was cooler earlier. It is when it is properly ripe on the plant that is the time it wants picking."
When the pick-your-own craze was at its height in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were many more jam makers taking buckets of strawberries from Bentley Grange. Chris said that isn’t the case as much today.
“Our main customers today are families and couples who come for the sheer joy of picking the fruit. We are now somewhere to come to bring the kids for a family outing. We get a lot of repeat customers.
“The strawberries are also now grown in bags on tabletops, which the pick-your-own customers prefer, as they are able to pick them at waist height rather than having to bend down.”
There are many varieties of strawberry. Chris said that five years ago he made the change to a new variety after having grown his previous one many years.
“We grew Elsanta, the predominant variety among UK growers for a long time, but we now grow Malling Centenary that has a slightly better sweetness and is more productive.”
Chris’s main business is now animal feeds, that came about through mill and mixing their own pig feed. His uncles came up with the idea of using the same equipment to manufacture dog food and the shop developed from there.
Chris said the farm, once pigs and poultry, is now a small part of the overall business. “I’m still lucky to be able to live in a fantastic place and come out of my front door to be in a brilliant environment.”
Chris said it is best to check the website for when strawberries are available on www.bentleygrange.co.uk