Strawberries used to be a summer treat but now we can have them in Britain all year round. What was once a six-week seasonal delicacy is now available from March to December. Is the strawberry no longer a British summer tradition?
“The reason why soft fruit has boomed in England so much is due to customer demand,” says Ben Deme, head farmer of Chegworth Valley.
“Strawberries used to be grown in June and July but now they start in April and can go through till November. We grow everbearer varieties so they grow slow and steadily and have a lot of different phases. Everbearing strawberry plants produce fruit throughout an entire growing season.”
As you enter through the farm gates, rows and rows of strawberries fill a number of polytunnels at Chegworth Valley Farm in Kent. Yet, if Chegworth Valley didn’t have these tunnels they would only be able to grow a small portion of the strawberries that they grow now, or maybe no strawberries at all.
“Without polytunnels, soft fruit growing in this country wouldn’t be a thing, it would all be coming from Spain,” explains Ben.
Chegworth Valley farm was founded in 1983 by Ben’s parents, David and Linda Deme. They now grow and maintain 300 acres of farmland in Kent and have set up three of their own independent farm shops. They are very hands on – every batch of their juice is tested by a member of the family before it’s bottled.
Ben has been the man behind the experimentation on the farm in recent years – especially concerning the polytunnels. Ben’s earliest farm memories were playing in the fields and building fires, but strawberry picking also played a huge part.
“When I was 15 we had another small farm a few miles from here with glass houses and we used to pick strawberries there in summer. After a day of strawberry picking I said to my parents ‘I’m not going back to school’ and after some discussion I started working full-time on the farm,” Ben says.
When summer comes around strawberries are one of Chegworth Valley’s most popular items and have earned them a strong reputation as a leading British family fruit farm.
Housed in a number of large polytunnels, five varieties of strawberries are grown on the farm, and all without the use of pesticides or chemical sprays.
“With strawberries we mainly look for taste, flavour and productivity. We want a decent amount of fruit but it’s mostly about the taste with our fruit. That’s our number one priority. We also want varieties that are disease resistant because we want to avoid spraying anything on them.”
While the growing popularity of strawberries in Britain is a positive thing, the potential in future of extending the growing season any further isn’t one that Ben sees huge merit in.
“The innovation in growing has had a big effect, having a longer season and people realising that they can buy British strawberries not just in June. It’s good to extend the season, but maybe not too much…”, he laments.
With the strawberry being the symbol of summertime picnics, the fruit to pair with our love of Pimm’s and the icon of Wimbledon, eating them in January or October could alter the pride of place the fruit has in the British summer season.
“Some people are growing tomatoes all year round and that used to be unheard of – so I guess if you did strawberries in a glass house with lights and heat, then maybe you could sell them year round. But do people want to eat strawberries in January? Does it not spoil it a bit?”
In the past few years, however, the increasingly unpredictable weather in Britain has caused some farms to harvest strawberries as early as February. With these changes in climate the future of British strawberries could see the fruit’s growing season shifting altogether.
Around 20 years ago Chegworth Valley decided to stop supplying their produce to supermarkets. And while strawberries from abroad are available in supermarkets year round, Chegworth Valley have no intention of sending theirs back to the supermarket in future.
“With a supermarket there’s a lot that gets left behind, produce might be too small, over ripe, they might have too high sugar content or not enough sugar. This might look like the perfect strawberry but it might have 11.5% sugar instead of 12% and then they’ll send them back. We use everything so if we don’t sell something we juice it, so we can use every single fruit pretty much.”
As we walk between the rows of strawberries to exit the polytunnel, Ben hands me a strawberry to taste. Its texture is firm and healthy, it tastes perfectly sweet and has a deep flavour that takes me back to summer picnics and barbeques with eton mess for dessert.
With the many pressures small family farms face, Chegworth Valley is proving that it’s possible for British family farms to thrive, you’ve just got to do things a little differently.