Fruitful time for ASF as season for strawberries reaches peak

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THE past month of good weather has boosted Scotland's soft fruit industry.

"We have sold a lot of fruit. It is so much better than last year, when we hardly saw the sun," said Lochy Porter, of Angus Soft Fruits (ASF), Arbroath.

He said the 10C difference between the good weather in Scotland with the stiflingly hot weather in the south of England gave growers north of the Border a big advantage, as soft fruit production was very difficult when the temperature rocketed.

Supermarkets are playing their part in encouraging more locally-grown soft fruit to be eaten. John Gray, commercial manager at ASF, said that at this time of year, strawberries were the single biggest selling item with the major retailers.

Over the past decade, fresh strawberry sales have increased each year, often with double digit percentage growth. The UK soft fruit market is worth 650 million, with strawberries the major contributor.

Increasing tonnages of raspberries, blueberries and blackberries are coming on the market. The sales potential for the latter two were very good, Mr Gray said, but while strawberries and raspberries benefited from having a Scottish label, blueberries did not.

Although only 15 years old, Angus Soft Fruits has a turnover of 65m and contributes 16 per cent of the soft fruit bought in the UK. The season is at its height and about 200,000 punnets of fruit are sent out every day for distribution throughout the country.

As a big supplier to the supermarkets, ASF has been encouraged to provide fruit throughout the year, and has made deals with producers in Europe and Central and South America.

At home, the emphasis has been on lengthening the ripening period to avoid oversupply. "There is not much fun in fighting for market share at peak periods," said Mr Porter.

ASF has used the premium strawberry variety Ava, but is moving away from it as the recession bites. .

Demand is rising for another ASF venture, "Good Natured" fruit, produced without pesticides, with sales expected to easily surpass last year's 2.5 million.

Mr Porter said cost increases were "our biggest challenge".

He went on: "We are very vulnerable to increases in the minimum wage rates. Our pickers now all work on an hourly rate and bonuses are paid for extra fruit picked."

The use of oil-based polythene tunnels makes fruit producers vulnerable to oil price changes. The tunnels cost about 15,000 an acre, but Mr Porter said: "They have transformed our business.

"Not only can we pick independently of the weather, but our harvesting now lasts for the best part of the year."