Angus Soft Fruits MD John Gray tells Fred Searle why it is more important than ever for supermarkets, and government, to support the UK berry sector

What are the biggest challenges facing the UK soft fruit industry at the moment?

It’s a similar situation to last year. Soft fruit production is fragile at the moment in terms of the increased cost. There are fairly static returns, and costs have increased by a factor of nearly 30 per cent in the last two years, but generally retailers are listening.

It’s been a delayed start to the UK season. Delayed seasons are never ideal, but we’ve just got to look forward to some good sales weather and get on with it. The big issue last year was a lack of sales at the peak of the summer.

As things stand today, the market’s short of fruit. Retailers have got behind berries and are generally promoting. And now, over the next two weeks, we’ll see availability improve and we’re expecting to see very good availability in June. It’s all about sales. Last year, the lack of sales in June was a problem.

How is the cost-of-living crisis affecting British berry sales?

We’re still in the middle of cost-of-living challenges for shoppers and they’ve got decisions to make as to whether they buy bananas, apples, berries, grapes, or other fruits. The relative prices of those products can of course influence what shoppers do. Among those products, the minority are British, so the hope is that retailers will back British berries and give them plenty of shelf space.

The winter’s been challenging because there’s been a lack of availability out of North Africa and Spain due to weather, so retailers haven’t had the volume to push berries through the winter as much. But berries are a hero category, so all retailers want them front and centre, they want to be pushing them, and ideally, they want them to be British.

What is the current situation with seasonal labour?

Numbers are a challenge. In the peak of the season, when things get busy, we’re definitely not doing all the jobs that we would like to in terms of crop husbandry. Instead, we have to focus on picking.

It’s great that the government has announced that there will be 45,000 seasonal worker visas, with the potential for more. But there’s definitely still a challenge around availability. And that’s not getting any easier.

The quality of labour has obviously been a big challenge as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Last season there were a lot of different nationalities and that created issues.

There are now more labour providers, and I think the early signs are that it’s a bit more stable this year because they’ve had more time to plan. We’d expect that this will lead to an improvement in the quality of labour that comes in.

Last year there were concerns in the UK soft fruit sector that supermarkets were trying to reduce their in-store waste by stocking berries in smaller volume. Are you concerned that retailers will take a similar approach during this UK season?

I don’t think that’s really a thing at the moment. I think it was maybe a post-Covid nervousness and a cost control measure from supermarkets at that time. I think retailers are now more focused on driving sales than they were at this time last year, and it’s all about sustaining that through June as the volumes build.