Almost as key to Wimbledon’s image as its tennis, strawberries are a vital part of the tournament’s catering operation. Kate Chapman visits a supplier farm.
In just under a month’s time, one of the oldest and most famous tennis tournaments will begin, attracting millions of views from around the world. Whether Wimbledon will bask in more sunshine remains uncertain, but one winning combination which is a given is the delectable indulgence of strawberries and cream. The go-to choice is synonymous with the London-based event, having been served ever since the first tournament in 1877, when 200 spectators came to watch the championships. According to the Wimbledon website, 28,000kg of strawberries and 10,000 litres of cream were consumed by visitors last year alone. It is a tradition steeped in history and getting the strawberries to the venue is no small logistical operation, beginning before the sun comes up on each of the 13 days of play.
The strawberries are picked on the day they are served, harvested at about 4am, and arrive on-site at about 11am to be hulled and inspected. It is a meticulous process and, when it comes to growing strawberries, Hugh Lowe Farms, one of the event’s core suppliers, has it covered. The Kent family business has been producing the fruit for 125 years and supplying the Wimbledon Championships for a quarter of a century. Heading it up is fourth-generation farmer Marion Regan who is also busy making plans to mark their 125th anniversary year and emulate the farm’s continued success into the future.
“I’m always looking forward,” she says. “I like celebrating the past but I’m a lot more interested in the future of the business and where it’s going. “We have a passion for berries and they are a lovely crop to grow, but challenging too. It’s also very much a people business, so we have always put our seasonal staff at the top of our thinking as, without them, there would be no business.”
Marion’s great-grandfather Bernard Champion started farming in 1893 when he planted his first crop of strawberries in Mereworth, west Kent. Picked early, his fruit was transported to London’s Covent Garden Market by horse-drawn spring vans for sale the same day.
“Kent is known as the Garden of England because of the climate, the aspects, the soil and it’s proximity to London. “My great-grandfather was able to get the produce up to the capital quickly and we’ve grown from there,” adds Marion, who took over from her father, Hugh Lowe, as managing director in 1996. Today the farm covers 700 hectares (1,730 acres), a mix of rented and owned land, most of which is still around Mereworth and Greensand Ridge, above the Weald and its welldrained sunny, south-facing slopes. There is also farmland nearer to London and it was this close proximity to the capital which led Wimbledon’s caterers to first approach the family about supplying strawberries to the tournament in 1992. Hugh Lowe Farms grows 5,000 tonnes of strawberries annually, almost 30t of which are consumed at Wimbledon when 100,000 succulent red berries are eaten daily.
Marion says: “The main variety enjoyed by players and spectators at Wimbledon is Malling Centenary, which is a quintessential English strawberry, locally-bred and wellsuited to the job due to its great flavour and bright colour.”
Along with strawberries, the farm also grows 1,000t of raspberries and a crop of blackberries, which are supplied to national supermarkets, high-end catering firms, plus local farm shops, greengrocers and London wholesalers. Combinable crops including spring beans, wheat and barley are also grown and marketed by Weald Granary, while the farm’s cropping ratio is split equally between the berries, arable and uncropped areas managed for wildlife as grassland, margins or trees.
With the strawberry season running from April to November, Marion and her team grow several varieties to help meet the nation’s continuous demand for fresh, home-grown berries. A combination of short day types (June-bearers), which make flower buds under short autumn days and produce fruit when they grow the following summer, and Everbearers, varieties forming flower buds whatever the day length and producing fruit all summer long, help them do this.
An exclusive arrangement between Berry Gardens, the farm’s marketing co-operative, and the American company Driscolls means they can grow its varieties, including the premium Driscolls Zara and Driscolls Jubilee, both super sweet and heart-shaped, which command a premium for their flavour, although they are not very high yielding.
To produce quality berries, Marion says it is essential to start with good quality, pest- and disease-free planting stock. These are grown for the farm by specialist nurserymen.
“The life of the fruit starts at planting, although that’s not really the start of our involvement as we work closely with the propagators,” says Marion.
“We have to really look at the quality of the plant material including flavours, visual appearance and agronomic properties. We need strong plants which will hold up to constant picking.
“Obviously as farmers, these agronomic characteristics are important but there’s no point growing something which yields fantastically but nobody wants to eat.”
Strawberries are grown in substrate, planted in pots or grow bags and grown under semi-permanent tunnels. They are suspended on shoulder high ‘table tops’, making them easier to pick and manage. The pots or bags are filled with coir, a by-product of the coconut industry which can support several successive crops and is then recycled as a soil conditioner.
The farm favours bio-controls, using naturally-occurring beneficial insects to overcome diseases and pests, such as Western flower thrips which are otherwise hard to control, as Mary explains.
“We have quite a holistic approach and I think our system is quite a unique one, fully integrated and linked to the environment.
“The feed and irrigation regime is constantly tweaked and we focus on the agronomy, relying heavily on biological control for pests and diseases.
“We’re not organic, but chemical controls are only used when strictly necessary. As well as introducing insects into our crops to control pests, we also encourage these insects by planting flower-rich field margins too.”
Specialist systems have been installed to ensure each plant gets the correct amount of water and feed, depending on its stage of growth. Harvest takes place from April to November and is the most crucial operation. With no alternative means, berries are hand-picked by groups of pickers supervised by skilled harvest staff to ensure the fruit is handled correctly.
Once picked, the berries are transported via a fleet of trucks to the farm’s packhouse within the hour, where they are chilled to remove field heat. They are held at 2-5degC, before being weighed into punnets, assessed for quality control and then sealed with a film lid. Customers then either collect direct or, for supermarkets, the farm delivers to their depot using their nominated haulier.
As a member of Leaf, the farm is encouraged to implement responsible practises and this includes a whole farm environmental plan, encompassing conservation, waste management, water management, recycling, energy efficiency and crop protection policies. It is almost self-sufficient in water for irrigation, collecting the run-off and rainwater from its tunnels to reservoirs from which water is recycled onto its crops.
The core challenge, says Marion, remains producing a consistent crop each year and this is combated by extensive forward planning.
“Soft fruits are quite challenging crops to grow and it’s quite a competitive market, with understandably demanding customers,” she says.
“Everybody has got an opinion about their flavour and quality. “So, for us, it’s really trying to grow a consistent quality for such a long season. The traditional period was June into July, but in the last two to three decades that’s changed.
“Now we use polytunnels and we also have a glasshouse to bookend the season and combine all this with using different plant types and varieties.
“As with all types of farming, we’re always looking to the next year and if there are issues, making sure they’re not repeated. Of course, something else always happens, but that’s part of the excitement of it all.
“It’s a long season, but we have periods through the year where we can take stock and plan for the following year.
“We are always looking forward and have already ordered next year’s plants. We are already thinking about 2020 and 2021.”
Recent investments include a new glasshouse, while polytunnels and accommodation for seasonal workers, who number more than 600 at peak times, are constantly being upgraded. As an employer of about 600 workers from Bulgaria and Romania, investment has been ploughed into providing accommodation to help retain numbers.
“We could not do without them. We are lucky to have some skilled people who return to us year after year and we want to keep them. So, while they’re with us, most live in purpose-built accommodation.”
As for the future, Marion says provenance and traceability remain key issues as the farm continues to meet market demands.
“Our customers tell us they really do know the difference between home-grown and imported strawberries.
“With berries, quite apart from the fact people want them to be fresh, they want to eat them with confidence and the best way to do this is to know exactly where they came from, tracing them back to the field and the people who picked them.
“For us it’s very important to be as operationally lean and efficient as possible too, given the restrictions on labour availability, so we need to focus on attracting and keeping the best, most skilled people. We focus on precision growing for optimum yields but above all we must grow what the market wants, when it wants it,” says Marion.
“The market will continue to grow steadily if we continue to put better and fresher fruit to it each year.
“And that’s our aim. We want to be here for another 125 years.”