A new British strawberry offers picnic season until November
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It’s the final week of the Wimbledon tennis tournament in London. The game is obviously what draws spectators, but over the years, the snacks have garnered their own kind of fame.
Strawberries and cream are a staple at the event: About 200,000 portions of the sweet, red British berries are consumed there each year. They all come from the same farm, which cultivates plants that produce fruit each June. But, a newcomer on the strawberry scene could soon supplant the summer staple.
That’s because down a quiet country lane in the county of Kent, a region known as the Garden of England, a new variety of strawberry has been created.
“We’ve called it Ace because it really excels in everything we see in it. It’s got really good, juicy flavor. It’s got fantastic fruit size, and actually, it yields really highly as well,” said Adam Whitehouse, senior fruit breeder at NIAB, the United Kingdom’s largest horticultural research and development center.
He said the Ace, which he helped cultivate, marks a significant change in strawberry production. Unlike other strawberry plants, which typically produce fruit from May to July, Ace gives berries well into the fall.
“The ever-bearers, which allow us to pick fruit all the way through October in the U.K., have come from a more recent breeding effort, actually from the U.S. in the 1970s. But they always suffered [from] poorer quality. And so, with Ace we’ve now really got the quality of a June-bearer in an ever-bearer,” he said.
In the works since 2015, the Ace has been bred with British consumers’ palates in mind, featuring high-sugar flavors, a bit of acidity and a sweet, aromatic perfume. But growers’ needs have also been factored in. As the plant grows, its leaves shoot to the top, while the arms that bear fruit finger down toward the roots. Even more unique, the berries don’t grow in a cluster. Rather, they naturally space themselves out, making harvesting a much easier process.
That offers potential relief for an industry that’s been battered by a Brexit-induced labor shortage and new visa requirements for workers from continental Europe.
“We are now starting to hear about labor shortages across the country of 5 to 15%, which is a significant shortfall for most big businesses,” said Nick Marston, chairman of the British Summer Fruits organization. The group represents the country’s soft-fruit growers.
“Last year, we managed to recruit probably 10% of the total horticulture workforce. This year it’s proved a lot harder. With hospitality and construction reopened, we’re finding folks who came to work on farms last year, the great majority of them are turning them down because they’re back working in their old jobs now,” he said.
Marston added that the availability of easy-to-harvest plants and new technology could, over time, lessen the pain of what’s expected to be a long-term labor drought.
“Growers have done a great deal already to reduce the labor content by growing on raised systems off the ground, so you don’t have to kneel down anymore to pick berries. We’ve probably reduced the labor content per hour by about a third already as an industry,” he said.
Whitehouse said Ace’s easy-harvest attributes could achieve labor-cost savings between $4,000 and $8,000 per 2.5 acres every year.
“Labor is one of the major costs in production. And so, actually being able to cut down on picking costs and increase efficiency is a real game changer for the industry,” he said.
The only question left: How quickly could the Ace land in a fruit basket near you? It’ll be released to growers later this year, which means it should reach U.K. consumers by 2023 at the latest. But American berry lovers hankering for their bowl of British berries and cream may have to wait just a little bit longer.
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