The Summer Berry Company’s ESG manager Silvina Morais tells FPJ why the producer has adopted an ecological approach as it faces up to climate change and looks to expand despite the current cost pressures

Tell me about the Summer Berry Company’s journey so far.

Our company exists as The Summer Berry Company Group since 2019 but the business draws on more than 50 years of experience in the berry industry, primarily in the UK and, since 2016, in Portugal.

Throughout the decades, we have worked on developing our people and our crops towards achieving excellence and sustainability in berry production for the coming generations.

Our ambition is to be a year-round category manager, capable of serving our clients from production sites in the UK, Portugal, Morocco and South Africa.

What are your main markets and who are your key customers?

Our key market is the UK, but we are rapidly expanding to European markets. We produce top-tier berries for premium retailers such as M&S, Waitrose, Tesco, Co-op and Ocado, to name just a few of our key customers.

Where are your main production sites and how big are they?

Our location on the UK’s south coast ensures that we have a mild climate with increased light levels during the spring and summer months, ideal for growing berries. Here, we produce berries in polytunnels, outdoors and inside a glasshouse, that – when combined – account for a cropped area in excess of 150ha. We harvest around 7,000 tonnes of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and mostly strawberries.

In Portugal, we are located in the south also, in Alentejo, which is the best place in Europe to produce berries. Here we own 212ha of land, of which 140ha is dedicated to farming and 20ha is fully dedicated to the conservation of natural habitats, to help us boost biodiversity around our crops. Raspberries are our primary crop in Portugal, accounting for around 70% of our 4,200 tonnes produced.

What is your company’s sustainability strategy?

Our sustainability strategy is very much grounded in the six pillars of our environmental, social and governance (ESG) programme. Those pillars are people, energy, water, carbon net zero, zero waste and biodiversity. Each of these pillars has a set of objectives and we are currently creating a coherent set of sustainability policies for the different regions in which we operate. This ensures that our efforts are standardised and future-proofed.

In the UK, for instance, we have our glasshouse sites that offer growing at its most high-tech, delivering domestically produced fruit far out of season. We are currently reviewing our energy strategy and are excited to have solar investments being installed in March, alongside further investments in LED lighting and overall energy systems.

Having good metrics and a standardised way to quantify them across our different operations is pivotal for the achievement of the sustainability goals. One of our biggest wins in terms of sustainable results – one that has definitely set us apart from other players in the industry – has been our major focus on biodiversity. It began when we focused on the idea that what is good for nature is also good for our production.

We have moved away from a conventional approach of simply producing a monoculture in an ecologically sterile environment to an ecological approach in which we create complex landscapes with dynamic ecosystems. For example, we planted a variety of insects’ habitats consisting of flowers, herbs and grass right alongside our crops. This attracted so many insects that almost all pests were devoured before they had any chance to do any damage. As a result of this ecological resilience, we have been able to drastically reduce herbicide and insecticide use by 60% and 79% respectively at our Portuguese farms.

There has been scrutiny of various companies’ net-zero commitments, with some businesses accused of greenwashing. What are you doing to ensure your environmental strategy makes a real difference?

When it comes to sustainability claims it is important to distinguish between carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. Our primary focus is on making sure our agricultural practices go beyond net zero and have positive impacts by regenerating our farm landscapes and ecologies.

To make sure these claims are not hollow we are striving to be transparent regarding our practices and their impact. When it comes to carbon emissions, we are aiming to be net zero in 2030 without depending on offsetting. Until that date, we may utilise offsetting programmes to compensate for our current emissions, but we are aware that offsetting is not an ideal solution to reducing actual fossil fuel emissions, so you will not see us claiming to be fully net zero until we truly are.

What specific sustainability challenges do you face in Portugal?

In Portugal, we face two very specific challenges: the location of our farms in a natural park and the availability of water resources. The first challenge confirms what we have always believed and worked towards: that it is our moral obligation to make sure we respect nature and make a positive contribution to the resilience of the ecosystems around us.

The water availability challenge forces us to be innovative – to discover and create new ways of managing and saving water. We have been experiencing very encouraging results so far. In fact, in 2022 we were able to irrigate 50ha of raspberries with water that we captured from rain and drainages. In 2023 we are confident this number will be much higher.

British Berry Growers has warned that cost pressures will force British producers to reduce their soft-fruit volume. Is this a possibility for your business?

Businesses need to constantly be able to adapt to change and update their operations based on their ever-changing needs. Obviously, we are very aware of the high costs of production and the impact it has on our operation. Having said that, we truly believe in the UK’s potential to grow berries and we will continue to invest in both our people and our crops in the UK.

What we also plan is to invest in other territories that complement our production, in a logic of expansion, rather than disinvesting in our current production sites, or replacing them with others. Expansion is an important keyword in our strategy plan for the years ahead.

What changes do you expect to see in the UK berry sector over the next five to 10 years?

Will biodiversity and nature-based farming be integrated by more and more growers? Will automation be greatly developed because of labour challenges? Will packaging innovation become disruptive? Will the cost of production bring new challenges? Will the higher prices and the cost of living be a barrier to purchasing? In such context, will we see a growth of top-tier varieties? All possibilities are on the table.