The British berry sector is going through a tough time, but the entrepreneurial spirit of Scottish supplier Angus Soft Fruits stands it in good stead. Fred Searle explores the company’s past, present and future on its 30th anniversary

Three decades is a long time in any business, but few could have predicted the scale of the UK berry sector’s transformation in that period. One business that has ridden the wave of consumption growth, varietal renaissance, and now squeezed margins is Angus Soft Fruits. And the Scottish berry producer is a great example of how a small family business can grow to make an outsized impact on the British fresh produce trade.

For Angus Soft fruits, the journey first began 70 years ago, in 1964, when a man named Willie Porter hand-planted two acres of strawberries in the county of Angus on the east coast of Scotland. He drove them down to Manchester to sell at the city’s fruit market. And the strawberries were so popular that he trebled production over the next two years and started selling them at Covent Garden Market in London too.

Subsequently, in the 1970s, Porter’s cousin James Gray began growing raspberries and then strawberries, also in Angus, for sale at Manchester fruit market and others in England. The two sides of the family would later join forces to create Angus Soft Fruits. But this didn’t happen until Willie Porter’s son Lochy – now company chairman – returned from working in New Zealand and rented East Seaton Farm in 1991. He later bought the farm in 1996 with Debbie, his wife.

At that time, they also farmed spring barley, winter wheat, potatoes, oilseed rape, and cattle. But Lochy decided to focus on berries due to rising supermarket demand, advances in growing techniques – and because that’s where his interest lay.

Seizing the moment

“In the early 1990s there was strong demand from the UK supermarkets, who were very keen to develop the soft-fruit sector,” Lochy recalls. “There was a great opportunity for us to supply Scottish strawberries, which in those days came after the English fruit was finished. This, and the fact that Scottish berries ripen more slowly than English, gave the Scottish fruit a point of difference which allowed us to speak to the retailers directly.”

In 1994, Angus Soft Fruits was born. And the business started selling its strawberries and raspberries directly to supermarkets – rather than through various large marketing desks, as they had previously.

“The other big development at that time was the change in the agronomy of soft-fruit production,” says Lochy. “You had the development of cold storage, trickle irrigation, raised bed production, and season extension. The timing was perfect, and we took advantage of all that.”

Expanding supply

The initial idea was for the company to grow and sell its own fruit. But in the 2000s that changed, and the company started packing and supplying the fruit of other Scottish berry growers too. These partnerships were forged when in 2001 Angus Soft Fruits agronomist David Griffiths developed a bespoke production system for strawberries and early raspberries, known as the Seaton System.

“It meant growers could buy all the production kit, build it to our specification, and plant the varieties our customers wanted,” Lochy explains. “That was a big change, and growers we’d never worked with before were very interested to come on board.”

This allowed Angus Soft Fruits to grow its strawberry volume in the Scottish supply window (from late April to the start of October), but soon this was no longer enough. The major multiples started demanding year-round supply so they could simplify their sourcing arrangements. Along with other major berry suppliers, Angus Soft Fruits had to start sourcing counter-seasonal fruit. And investments in Morocco and Chile were complemented by supply relationships with external growers in Spain and Poland. From the early 2000s, the company’s production also expanded to include blackberries and blueberries.

Breeding success

Where Angus Soft Fruits stood out from some of its UK competitors was in the realm of varietal development. And in 2002 the company launched the Angus Soft Fruits Breeding Programme. This paved the way for the very first strawberry to be sold in a UK supermarket’s premium tier, namely the AVA variety in Tesco’s nascent Tesco Finest range.

The premiumisation of soft fruit is a trend that has only gathered pace in the 21 years since. But managing director John Gray (son of the aforementioned James) sees plenty of opportunity to grow the premium segment further, estimating that it still only accounts for around 10 per cent of the retail market. This could prove increasingly important as growers grapple with margin pressure and climate-related availability challenges.

Since the success of that first AVA variety, the company’s breeders have brought through a host of other AVA-branded cultivars – the latest additions being premium raspberry varieties AVA Monet and AVA Dali.

“Raspberry producers are under a huge amount of pressure at the moment,” says John. “We’ve seen plantings decrease due to rising labour and production costs, and stagnant retail prices. So, we wanted to bring through varieties that fetch a premium, deliver on yield, and minimise crop management and picking costs.”

Sustainable future

These challenges aren’t limited to raspberries of course, and John has been vocal in calling for more sustainable returns for growers. In 2024, he published his Nuffield paper on increasing producers’ share of the value chain.

“As berry growers, we’re caught in the unsustainable position of our costs accelerating faster than our returns,” he says. “Obviously, the retailers sell the product, but it’s not a blame game. They have their own pressures.

“There is a degree of overcomplication in the supply chain, so there are opportunities for us to streamline pack sizes and varieties, which would allow us to reduce costs a little. But fundamentally, it’s about working together with supermarkets to arrive at a sustainable position. Several are definitely starting to listen and give better returns, partly because of recent availability issues. There has been a reaction this year, but there’s still a way to go.”

Lochy believes it is important that retailers are helped to understand the true cost of production. He points to other industries, such as eggs, where supermarkets have “had a bit of a fright on supply”. This has forced them to “dig a bit deeper” and properly understand production costs. “In the egg sector, I think that shift has made it a better industry for everyone.”

The pair agree that closer and more collaborative relationships with retailers are crucial to the future success of both Angus Soft Fruits and the wider berry sector. But innovation and a thirst for improvement are also key.

“Never be too satisfied,” says Lochy. “Keep looking, keep asking questions, and make good decisions for the long term. We’ve been around for 30 years now, but we’re in it for the long haul.”