At East End Nurseries in the village of Keyingham, East Yorkshire, a network of glasshouses covering nine acres are dedicated to strawberry production. The amount of heat, light, water and nutrients the plants receive is controlled by computer, enabling the farm to extend its growing season from the first week in April to the first week in December.
General manager Kevin Hobson explains it’s now possible to grow British strawberries all year round under glass but the high cost of heating glasshouses in winter combined with the annual influx of cheap imports from Egypt and Morocco, mean it makes commercial sense to cease production between December and March.
“There’s been a lot in the news about how 2014 has been a great year for strawberry growers, who’ve had a bumper crop due to the good weather. However that mainly relates to those growing in polytunnels,” Kevin said. “That’s because the technology we’ve invested in allows us to harvest two crops each year – one in spring and one in autumn.”
The glasshouses contain 360,000 strawberry plants - planted four to a pot on raised racks to make picking easy and to keep the fruit clean. The plants cropped at the start of the month were planted in August and the previous summer they started as runners, pegged into tiny pots and were misted with water until they rooted. That autumn they were given fertiliser to help them grow and at the end of November, the crowns of the plants were split to see how many trusses had formed. Trusses are the branch-like shoots that the strawberries eventually grow from.
“If we need to, we can send samples to Holland for flower mapping, which gives us a snapshot of how many trusses have formed – we want three trusses ideally. In early December, we lift the plants out of the trays, pack them into wooden boxes and put them in the deep freeze. They stay in a state of suspended animation until we plant them in August. The extreme cold makes the plant go dormant and breaks the hormones down, so when we plant them they’ll think that it’s March.”
The technique mimics the effects of a British winter. Kevin also releases 36 hives of bees into the glasshouses to pollinate the plants, and introduces other insects as a natural control against pests.
A team of 30 pickers works daily during the cropping season and the strawberries are graded and packed on site, hitting the supermarket shelves the following day.
East End Nurseries is owned by Peter Overvoorde, who also runs nearby Premier Plant Producers where all of the young plants are raised.
Peter’s father, Joe, came to Yorkshire from Holland and established the family business in 1949. He bought the East End Nurseries site in the 1970s at a time when it was used for tomato production.
Kevin said: “The original glasshouses are no longer efficient enough for tomato production so, bit by bit, they introduced strawberries. The glasshouses have a Dutch layout and we have a Dutch advisor who comes over regularly to offer guidance. The Dutch are leaders in this field; they’ve been growing strawberries under glass for 30-35 years - it’s only been happening over here for 10-20 years.”
With a decade of experience, Kevin has become adept at identifying when the fruit is at its best. “I can tell just by tasting them where the sugar level is. We have such good control over the environment and the nutrients we give to the plants that we can control sugar levels very accurately to keep quality high all year round. The technology we use enables us to get the very best out of the plants.”