What we do
Our aim is to supply the tastiest and healthiest soft fruit for all our customers, whether it is in large volume to a supermarket depot, or it is a single punnet to a customer at our roadside stall. Soft fruit growing requires much forward planning as some crops like blueberries can be in the ground for decades, and even shorter term crops like strawberries last from one to four years. However, decisions taken years before the crop is planted can still affect the crop. We ensure we are involved with the best breeding programmes so that we can plant the best quality varieties. We build up the fertility of the soil over time so that the plant can grow as well as possible, and if our land becomes infected with diseases which prevent the plants growing to their best potential, we look for new fields to rent for these crops and plant different species, unaffected by the disease in our original land.
During the growing season, we try to give the plants the best growing conditions so that they produce the best crops with the best flavours. Plants growing well are more resistant to diseases, but even with the best conditions, some diseases sometimes come into the plants, and then we have to control them. We try to use as many methods as we can find avoiding pesticides first of all, such as predatory mites to eat the damaging ones, or nematodes that infect weevils, and if we have to spray pesticides, we use the most environmentally friendly products, and spray the minimum amount necessary to be effective.
The harvest is a critical time. We must plan to have all the people and equipment organised before the season so that everything runs smoothly. We rely on our large staff of pickers to select the best fruit and handle it gently, before it is taken from the field as quickly as possible to be chilled so that it will stay in the best condition to delight our most important person, the one who buys and eats our strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and redcurrants.
Probably the biggest development in the growing of fruit in the last 20 years has been the use of polytunnels to protect our crops. This equipment is erected over the fields in the spring, and keeps the crops warm and dry as they grow. This keeps many fungal diseases at bay, as well as speeding up the ripening of the fruit so that we can start picking up to a month earlier than we could in open fields. During harvest, they are essential to keep the ripening fruit dry and disease free, as well as allowing us to pick the fruit at the optimum time of ripeness, and not be delayed by rain. In Scotland up to half the days during harvest can be spoilt by rain, so tunnels are essential for us to give reliable employment to our staff, and reliable deliveries to our customers.
Peter Thomson - Managing Director
Peter Thomson has been with the company since leaving university with a degree in physics in 1976. He has overseen many changes, starting with the closing of the textile mills, and transforming the business from one that supplied only the processing industry to todayís company focussed on producing only the best fresh fruit. He actively oversees all operations, as well as being involved in outside bodies like Berry Gardens Growers Ltd., the co-operative that sells all our fruit, the Scottish Society for Crop Research and the Horticultural Development Company which both commission research to find better ways of growing soft fruit, and the National Farmers Union of Scotland where he chairs their Soft Fruit and Field Vegetable Working Group.
Melanie Thomson - Director
Melanie Thomson is Peterís wife and joined the company in 1987 after working as a crop adviser. She helps to oversee all aspects of the company, but is presently most active in new development, looking for new products to sell and new routes to market.
Simon Harris - Farm Manager
Simon Harris joined the company in 2009, coming from his previous job working with roses in Kenya. He also oversees all activities, but is primarily responsible for growing the crops and ensuring that all the staff are working enthusiastically and to their best ability. His background and experience means that he can bring valuable new insights to our business.
Reinier Wernsen - Packhouse Manager
Reinier Wernsen also joined the company in 2009. He looks after the packhouse when we are harvesting the fruit, ensuring that every order from our customers is delivered with top quality fruit. Out of the season, he works with Melanie to develop new markets.
Laura Woods - Human Resources
Laura has worked with the company since 2008, and has a wide range of responsibilities. She is in charge of recruiting our staff, organising their accommodation, and training them for work. She also runs our wages system, which has to cope with 400 people, most of whom are paid a variable amount each day on piece work. On top of this, she helps with our Health and Safety systems, our IT systems, and gives advice to Melanie and Reinier on new product development..
The harvest is the most critical time in our calendar, since fruit has to be picked in the best condition, and even a few hours of delay can lead to poor fruit. We need a great many people to pick the fruit, to supervise the pickers, to drive the harvested crop to the packhouse, and to pack and quality control and despatch the fruit to our customers. Every person has to do a good job as even one poor punnet will damage our reputation.
Harvest usually starts at 7.00 in the morning, but drivers have to set out the equipment earlier. During hot weather, when high temperatures in the afternoon can damage the fruit and make working in the fields unpleasant, we can start as early as 4am so that we can finish before the heat has got too strong.
Our harvest squads work in teams of 30, with 2 supervisors ensuring that each picker selects the best fruit, cleans the bushes of all the poor quality fruit which could spoil the next pick, and follows all the rules necessary for food safety. Pickers are paid by piece work so that the best workers are rewarded for their hard work, whilst the slowest are still guaranteed the minimum wage. We have to assess when each field needs to be picked all the time, as in hot weather, some raspberries have to be picked in the morning and evening of the same day in hot weather, but sometimes strawberries can be left for 4 days to allow them to ripen fully before picking. If we miss the best time, the field has to be cleared of the overripe fruit, so that it can be picked again the next time with good quality.
Once the fruit is picked, it is essential to get it to our packhouse as quickly as possible, so that it can be chilled; if the field heat is left in the fruit, it will rapidly deteriorate before we can get it to our customer.
Our packhouse is a modern building filled with modern chillers and packing machinery to prepare the fruit for sale. Continuous conveyors with cold air forced through the fruit ensure that it is chilled as quickly as possible. It is then held until we get an order, when it is run down our modern lines where the punnets are weighed, heatsealed on top, and labelled with the information required by the customer. At all stages it is inspected for quality control and any fruit not up to standard is removed for processing. The fruit is then despatched to our customers. When we sell fruit from the road side, we try to pick fruit on the day of sale, but sometimes it has to be picked the previous day. For our retail customers, we try to despatch fruit on the day of picking, but it can then take another 2 days to arrive on their shelves.
We are passionate about producing the best quality fruit that we can, as can be seen by how often we write about it on this website. Quality can only come when everything we do is done to our best. We must choose the best varieties to plant in the best fields, grow them well without over or under feeding and watering them, keep them disease free, then harvest them at the right time with pickers trained to select the best. Quality can mean many things, but the most important to us is flavour. It is this that keeps people wanting to eat our fruit. After we have got this right, we then make sure that the fruit is of the right firmness, the right colour and the right shape and size. Because soft fruit grows in the natural environment, quality will vary from day to day and even hour to hour, but we do everything we can to make sure it is good for the person who will eat it.
Sometimes we have to make some compromises. For instance, fruit usually gets sweeter as it ripens, but it also softens, so we might have to pick fruit slightly early if it is not to go soft before it reaches the customer. Sometimes late in the season, fruit does not colour fully even when it has ripened and developed its best flavour. However, flavour is always our priority, and we always err on the side of the best taste if we have to make a choice.