From strawberries and cream to healthy smoothies and heavenly fruit-laden pastries, it seems that the UK is in love with berries of all kinds. Strawberries are, of course, the nation’s favourite summer fruit, but raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and other cane fruit are all enjoying a boom in demand too.
This growth in demand translates into some very impressive figures. According to Defra, the UK soft fruit market was worth £670 million in2018, with strawberries accounting for a whopping £402 million of that total, and raspberries making up a further £67.5 million. Healthy eating trends mean that fruit smoothies, whether made at home or sourced from smoothie bars, are a popular choice. Fruit ciders, whilst not quite so healthy for us, are also a high growth area. These are important channels for the soft fruit sector, but demand for fresh berry fruit in supermarkets and other retail outlets makes up the bulk of current supply routes.
The UK is now more than 50% self-sufficient in soft fruit, and between April and October, it is 100% self-sufficient in strawberries and raspberries – that’s good news for customers, who are becoming increasingly concerned about food provenance.
All of this puts huge pressure on the UK’s soft fruit growers, especially since the market is forecast to continue to grow significantly in the coming years, with sales volumes likely to top the £1 billion mark very soon. A move towards polytunnel and commercial glasshouse growing has helped extend the season dramatically, with the first British-grown strawberries of 2018 going on sale at the end of February! Under-cover growing and increased crop acreage are only part of the story though, and UK growers need to be both vigilant and proactive in terms of crop protection, as there are a number of major diseases which can seriously affect yields, potentially leading to crop failure or huge harvest losses.
Disease threats to soft fruit
Phytophthora root rot is a significant problem in both blueberries and raspberries, and the same phytophthora oomycete causes crown rot and leather rot in strawberries. Grey mold, or Botrytis cinerea, is another devastating disease that is prevalent within the soft fruit industry, and it’s thought to be responsible for up to €10 billion in crop losses globally each year. Downy mildew, caused by the peronospora oomycete, further adds to the potential challenges facing soft fruit growers, with hard-to-spot symptoms and a full-lifecycle vulnerability. Raspberries have their own specific, additional threat, in the form of Leptosphaeria coniothyrium, which causes cane blight. Together, these four disease threats can pose enormous problems for growers, and along with other pathogens the potential for substantial economic losses.
Risks such as these mean that proactive crop management is essential. Early detection of disease can help growers to build an effective management plan, minimising the impact on the crop through targeted fungicide application, cleansing of irrigation sources and, where necessary, removal of affected plant material or bedding substrates. Increasing levels of fungicide resistance, alongside growing consumer awareness of food provenance and sustainability, mean that it is more important than ever before to tackle disease as efficiently as possible, with minimal reliance on chemical controls, wherever possible.
Minimising the risks
Moving production to a polytunnel or glasshouse based system allows for far better control of the growing environment of course, and this has been reflected in increased yields and a far longer growing season, and work is ongoing to find disease-resistant cultivars across all soft fruit types.
UK growers are now taking a much more proactive and evidence-led approach to crop monitoring and disease prevention than was seen even just a decade ago. For example, solutions such as FungiAlert’s SporSenz system allow farmers to analyse their soils, growing substrates and irrigation systems for the presence of harmful pathogens. Knowing the precise pathogenic make-up of each field, polytunnel or glasshouse enables the farmer to put together a specific management plan for each area and each identified disease threat.
Gone are the days of blanket fungicide application, as growers can now discover precisely where disease pockets are building up, and tackle just those areas. Given the increasing evidence of fungicide resistance in crops across the UK and further afield, this is a major benefit in itself. With increased consumer focus on provenance and sustainability, a more considered use of chemical control obviously helps sell the ‘British-grown’ brand, too.
The SporSenz system is based on a kit, which contains sensors to be placed in the field or growing area for a short time. These sensors are then sent to FungiAlert for genetic identification of pathogens down to sub species level, and the results are delivered back to the farmer by email. Sensors can be placed throughout the growing area, and results are provided per sensor, so it’s easy to track exactly where any pathogenic risk is, and to treat just that area. Pre-season screening can also highlight any potential risk, so that, for example, soil sterilants can be applied prior to the growing season, in order to reduce the risk of disease taking hold later in the year, when it would be more difficult, and more costly, to do anything about it.
Clearly, there will be all sorts of additional challenges for the berry market in years to come, with Brexit uncertainty and climate change just two potential issues that are likely to surface. For now, though, the future looks very promising, and revolutionary tech solutions like SporSenz will undoubtedly play a key role in the future development of the sector.