Driscoll’s claims that a group of larger, sweeter berry varieties will raise the bar for the UK’s soft fruit supply by offering producers, buyers and consumers the kind of attributes that suit the demands of today’s rapidly changing soft-fruit market. Produce Business UK finds out more about these potentially game-changing cultivars
Embarking on a blackberry-picking expedition before cooking an apple and blackberry pie is an end-of-summer UK tradition that one can only hope will remain sacrosanct. However, the introduction into the supermarket aisles of larger, sweeter-tasting berries such as the Driscoll’s Victoria blackberry could change consumer perception of how to use these particular berries, according to Nick Marston and Alastair Brooks, managing director and chairman of Berry Gardens respectively.
Berry Gardens is able to introduce Driscoll’s varieties to the UK market thanks to an exclusive agreement that the Kent-based soft- and stone-fruit production and marketing group has with the California-based breeder. New varieties are bred to feature specific characteristics that aim to meet the requirements of consumers, as well as those who work in the soft fruit industry and market the supply.
One such attribute is larger fruit sizes. “Size does matter now in our industry,” declares Brooks, adding that bigger berries have the significant ability to reduce picking costs. Once the UK government’s living wage is introduced, both Brooks and Marston are keen to emphasise that this feature will become increasingly important to growers challenged by a rising cost base.
“With bigger fruit, you get a 50% reduction in picking costs. It [fruit size] will be important,” Marston says.
Given their large size, two new Driscoll’s June bearer strawberries – Elizabeth and Rosalie – are therefore enjoying a welcome arrival this year. “It’s really exciting,” Brooks says. “We have been growing Driscoll’s everbearers since 2011, and it [Driscoll’s] has been working hard to release June bearers to the European market. Now we are growing them, which means we can offer good availability, good value and high quality products straight through the [strawberry] season.”
Elizabeth is an exceptionally sweet-tasting “top tier” strawberry that complements the well-known Driscoll’s Jubilee variety, says Brooks. Rosalie, meanwhile, also looks to have a lot of potential. “As far a replacement to Elsanta and Sonata, Rosalie is a huge step forward – better shelf life, flavour and fruit size. It also keeps its fruit size up to the end of the pick, which is a problem for Sonata and Elsanta,” he says.
“Our standard strawberry quality and offer will be substantially upgraded over the coming years as the new generation of Driscoll’s June bearers, such as Driscoll’s Rosalie, come into large scale production.”
As Brooks points out, shelf life and flavour are also important attributes in today’s UK berry market, which is why the latest raspberry, blackberry and blueberry varieties to arrive onto the supermarket shelves from Driscoll’s boast these key characteristics.
For instance, Brooks describes the new Riviera raspberry variety as being “a superb early primocane with great fruit size and outstanding flavour”. This “large, well-presented fruit” also has a significant ability to reduce picking costs and “eats better” than Driscoll’s Maravilla.
The arrival last year of the Victoria blackberry was also a strategy on the part of Berry Gardens and Driscoll’s to introduce sweeter-tasting blackberry varieties.
Marston and Brooks explain that in the US, blackberries have traditionally been viewed the same way as raspberries – namely as a “standalone” berry as opposed to being something to cook with. Brooks says: “We are trying to readjust the perception [in the UK] of what blackberries taste like.”
To that end, Berry Gardens and Waitrose have developed a punnet of raspberries that features a free sample of the larger, sweeter blackberries in its corner and demonstrates how retailers are encouraging consumers to give them a try.
“As a group, our tonnage of sweet eating blackberry varieties has increased over 50% year-on-year, with Driscoll’s Victoria making up a large percentage of the production,” reveals Marston.
“It was a new variety last year and has been well supported by the retailers. For example, it has been included in the Tesco £1 convenience pack this year, bringing it to new consumers. We anticipate that next year the sector will continue to grow with increased tonnage available.”
Not forgetting blueberries, Marston points out that plans are underway to introduce to the market in 2016 two new blueberry varieties – Driscoll’s Sweet Jane and Barbara Ann. Again, these will boast larger sizes and will be higher-yielding varieties.
“Produce from our test plots this year has delivered a consistent rounded flavour,” Marston explains. “As demand for British blueberries grows, it is the ideal time to introduce new [blueberry] varieties.”
Pointing to UK market data from analysts Kantar (for the 52 weeks to the week-ended June 21, 2015) Marston and Brooks say blueberries continue to be in huge demand. Currently, the blueberry market is valued at £235 million – representing an impressive year-on-year increase of 21.3%.
Other Kantar information shared by the pair suggests that demand for many other types of berries is also on the up. For instance, the blackberry market, which accounts for £28m of the total berry market, grew by 10% year-on-year – and the £505m strawberry market (which represents 52.5% of the overall berry market) saw a year-on-year increase of 2.5%. Meanwhile, raspberries showed a value growth of 16% and total berry sales rose 9.5% compared with the same period last year.
Consumer preference for British-grown fruit could be contributing to this market growth as, according to Marston, retailers are keen to buy as much British soft fruit as possible.
Given this popularity, the Berry Gardens group of growers is focusing on extending the UK season by continuing to invest in early and late-fruiting varieties, plus tunnelled crops and glasshouses.
As a result, the group’s early season sales (between early March and mid-May) of strawberries increased from 885 tonnes in 2014 to 1,210t this year – a growth of 37%. A high proportion of this tonnage featured the Driscoll’s Lusa variety, which Marston describes as a “superb early glasshouse strawberry” that offers an improvement on current mainstream glasshouse varieties.
And whilst the desire to extend the season is obviously an influence, so too is the changing retail landscape and consumers’ shopping habits. Marston explains: “The discounters continue to see significant growth year-on-year, and an increase in the formats offered by the ‘main’ retailers has made the market larger but more complex.
“As a supplier we have actively supported the retailers in offering different solutions to the ever-changing shopping patterns of UK consumers. This year, we have introduced a shelf-ready convenience (150g) pack [of strawberries] for Tesco, retailing at only £1, as well as a 1kg strawberry box perfect for entertaining.”
The group has also introduced a snacking pack format for its blueberries. “This has been picked up by retailers, reinforcing the blueberry message as a superfood and a healthy, convenient snack,” Marston claims.
Given the number of new retail offerings cropping up on the shelves, and the wealth of new varieties in development, Berry Gardens and the soft-fruit sector at large is an exciting place to be at the moment.
But, as Marston points out, there is always more work to do. “It’s important that the overall standard of strawberry quality improves and there’s still some way to go […] the sooner we get there the better.”