With Andy Murray’s emphatic Wimbledon win creating all-time record sales of strawberries – the 8,130 tonnes sold over Wimbledon fortnight were up 40 per cent on 2012 – there are positive vibes among the soft-fruit industry at the moment. However, with blueberries rapidly increasing in popularity, the red berry could finally have real competition at the top.

While strawberries remain dominant, representing 56.7 per cent of the market, there was a decline of four per cent in their performance for the year ending 9 June 2013, while blueberries increased their value by an impressive 16.4 per cent, to £166 million.

“Strawberries are likely to always have a major share, but there is definitely now a significant opportunity to drive growth in other berries,” admits John Gray, commercial director of Angus Soft Fruits.

Marks & Spencer says its blueberries have seen a 25 per cent rise in sales over the last 12 months. The upmarket retailer, which is outperforming its market share of 3.1 per cent with a 5.8 per cent grip of the soft-fruit category, believes blueberries can start to match its strawberry sales.

A spokesperson told FPJ: “We introduced the first-ever British commercial late-season blueberries last year, extending the UK blueberry season for customers. We are the first major retailer able to consistently offer British blueberries for customers to enjoy right up until the end of October, extending the season for a total of eight weeks, and this has helped them to become a customer favourite.”

Despite the amount of soft fruit purchased by UK consumers per trip to the supermarkets in decline over the last year, Gray believes the pattern is easily reversible.

He explains: “A lot of the category’s decline has been down to the weather disrupting availability of imports and suppressing demand in the summer. This has led to deflation as retailers try to hold up overall sales values. I think the last few weeks show what can happen when we actually get decent weather with resulting surges in sales.”

Demand for soft fruit may have slowed, but there was still an increase of 0.6 per cent in value, representing an uplift of some £4.6m over the last year. Berry Gardens’ MD Nicholas Marston says that despite wet weather dampening berry sales last summer, the grower and marketer managed to buck the trend by achieving its second-highest ever turnover of £200m in 2012. Marston says the growth of raspberries – with Berry Gardens reporting a 10 per cent increase in sales – and blueberries creates a lot of opportunities for growers.

He explains: “There is still opportunity for blueberries to grow even further – with periods of low supply levels in the spring and autumn presenting the chance to increase sales, and also the improving varietal offer giving better fruit quality. Raspberries have a huge opportunity to grow by increasing penetration in the UK season, and by increasing the volume of supply of superior Driscoll’s variety raspberries during the Moroccan and Spanish seasons.”

With the 2013 season in full flow, Adam Olins, MD of Berry World, admits that the overall soft-fruit industry is currently behind schedule. “The season started late this year and volumes are behind on last year, however this is purely down to weather conditions. It’s a long season and we are only halfway through [in volume].”

Olins adds that there has perhaps been too much of a price drop on berries in supermarkets recently due to the late start of the UK season and the resulting oversupply of the market due to a concentration of volumes.

With the Department of Heath revealing its idea to ban packed lunches in response to high levels of obesity among UK children, it wouldn’t go far wrong in adding more soft fruit to the school meals agenda, according to Morrisons’ soft-fruit buying manager Glen Cooper. He says: “Parents who shop at Morrisons won’t go far wrong if they feed their kids berries from a young age.”

A real opportunity, perhaps.

Having pretty much halved the traditional production cycle of bringing a new variety to the commercial market with the launch of new strawberry Ava Rosa, Marion Durose, NPD manager at Angus Soft Fruits, says that the science is really starting to come together for the UK soft-fruit industry.

A larger strawberry than usual, with average sizes well over 20g and a season that lasts from late April to late October, the premium-range Ava Rosa, which is now on sale in the likes of Tesco and Morrisons, had its first crop planted back in 2009.

“Traditionally it takes seven to 10 years to develop a new variety and have it ready for commercial use,” explains Durose.

“Next year will be year five for this variety and we are ready to add 45 times more volume to add to the millions of plants already planted.”

Durose insists that Ava Rosa’s excellent resistance to disease means that it will require “little to no pesticide use” and can save growers a small fortune. “In the production process we will manipulate crops to put them under stress to test their tolerance to specific diseases and this allows us to produce the strongest plants possible. I really don’t think we are too far away from a fresh produce industry in which, on a very large scale, disease-free soft-fruit crops are the norm.”

Revealing that Angus Soft Fruits is currently looking into developing new blueberry varieties “for a market that is growing rapidly” and has eight “promising” advanced selections within its raspberry breeding programme, Durose says that the soft-fruit producer would be open to the idea of GM technology but stresses it
isn’t imperative.

She concludes: “I think on some level the nature of what we do is already a form of GM, we are just modifying fruit in the good old-fashioned way. If there was enough customer demand, we would certainly consider adopting the technology in the relevant areas but I feel we have shown with our selections that we can significantly reduce the need for chemicals. I think there are cheaper alternatives to GM right now and there is a still a long way to go for producers in pushing current technology in the bid to help boost home-grown production.” —