One pick your own fruit business is drawing in the crowds and using the opportunity to communicate positive messages about farming and the environment, as Aly Balsom finds out.
Treating fruit picking as a family day out has proved a success at Craigie’s, near Edinburgh, and it is no doubt one reason it is the last pick your own (PYO) business in the area.
Where many PYO farms got frustrated with visitors having their daily feed in the field and just paying for a punnet of strawberries, John Sinclair recognised changing family habits and began charging accordingly, a move which has turned the fortunes of this part of his enterprise round.
He explains: “If you go back to the 1980s, customers picked fruit to put in the freezer and make jam. Now it has developed into a day out and fruit is almost the by-product of it, so we have changed the way we charge.” Now, visitors pay an entry fee to the fields of £3 per person, which is deductible from the value of fruit they pick. The approach has proved hugely successful.
John says: “PYO would have probably just been washing our faces 10 years ago. Now we’re making good profits.” In fact, figures show visitors travel up to 100 miles or about oneand- a-half hours to pick their own fruit and enjoy the Craigie’s farm shop and cafe in summer, similar distances to what people travel to visit any family attraction.
The policy of selling direct to consumers is one which has long been in existence at West Craigie Farm, South Queensferry, where the Sinclair family has been tenant farmers of the Dalmeny Estate since 1959 and a farm shop has been there since 1990. John’s father George was the first to fully embrace the farm’s location one mile from the edge of Edinburgh, and deliver milk from the farm’s dairy herd to hotels and doorsteps in the city.
But, when pasteurisation rules were introduced in the 1970s, the dairy went and the 105-hectare (260-acre) farm became a mainly arable operation with some beef. The 1980s proved tough and George was forced to look at diversification options to ensure the survival of the business, so the soft fruit enterprise was then born.
When George passed away, John took over and began supplying soft fruit to supermarkets. But he decided to step away from this market in 2011 due, in part, to the limited space available to expand to the size supermarkets required.
John says: “PYO was also back in favour again and the farm shop was developing so there was the chance to sell all the fruit through the shop. It also made more sense as it allowed more control over margins.” Now, 70 per cent of the farm’s fruit is PYO with the rest sold through the farm shop.
The range of fruit has expanded over the years to include 10 hectares (25 acres) and visitors can now pick strawberries, apples, cherries, raspberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries. Apples ensure the season is extended into autumn, and are run alongside pumpkins for the Halloween trade.
These are again sold as a family experience, with each pumpkin sold for £6-£7 with a carving kit and the option of carving on site.
The farm’s location can add to the challenges of growing certain fruits. Frost is a particular issue for the farm’s relatively new venture, PYO cherries, which started last year. The move into this type of top fruit has required long-term commitment, with cherry trees going in the ground in 2012 and taking five years to establish.
With no experience of growing top fruit, John has taken on a manager to help. The trees were initially ordered in 2010 and planted two years later at a rate of 1,000 trees per hectare (400 trees/acre). Blossoms were taken off in spring for the first two years to allow the plant’s energy to be directed into establishment.
In year three, the blossom was left and the trees covered with polytunnels. The first fruit was produced in year four at about a 20 per cent crop, with an 80-90 per cent crop in year five. Seven varieties of cherry have been planted to spread risk, including Regina, Sweetheart, Merchant, Simone and Karina.
John says: “A seventh of the crop is in blossom at one time so if you get a frost you’re limiting damage. “One variety was ripped by frost this year. They were damaged just as the tunnels were going on. But the tunnels only protect down to -2degC. If it’s -3 or -5degC the tunnels cannot protect them.”
Apart from the frost, the cherries have taken little management, only needing pruning twice a year, after harvest and in spring. This is particularly important to ensure the plant grows so there are enough low hanging branches for PYO. In comparison, the strawberries require the largest amount of management.
These are housed in polytunnels and fed with a trickle irrigation system including essential nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and calcium, which is needed to stop fruit going mushy. Water and nutrient levels are then tweaked according to temperature and stage of plant growth.
Four varieties, Elsanta, Jubiless, Sweet Easy and Sontata, spread the harvest window and give the customer choice. The aim is for harvest to start in July and run until September to coincide with the school holidays. John expects a strawberry yield of about 20t/ha (8t/acre) in PYO, while the cherry trees are expected to yield 7-8t/ha (about 3t/acre).
Although the business is geared up for families, John says they are always working to attract the retired professionals with large disposable incomes which live nearby. To avoid putting off customers without children in school holidays, John is looking at opening a separate unit on a nearby farm with an outdoor and indoor play area.
He says: “Craigie’s will then be the foodie destination. It means we can target groups such as young professionals with no families.” The Craigie’s farm shop has come a long way since it opened in 1990, selling soft fruit in summer. Increasing interest gave the Sinclair family confidence to invest and the cafe was built in 2007.
This was largely financed by the sale of farm machinery from the arable business, with John deciding to get contractors to farm the arable for him so he could focus on the fruit and farm shop. The contractor grows 49ha (120 acres) of rye and 28ha (70 acres) of potatoes, some of which are sold through the farm shop.
John is happy to step away from the arable, admitting it ‘bores’ him now. The Sinclairs also grow 2ha (five acres) of vegetables which are viewed as ‘dressing’ for the shop as customers expect it. The shop is packed full of products including local cheeses, porridge oats, bread and ice cream, all specially selected to have a good story behind them.
About 40 per cent of produce sold in the shop is grown or manufactured by the Sinclairs and 44 per cent comes from other Scottish food producers. “We’ve got 14 supermarkets within four miles of us. There’s no way we can compete with them. It’s like the soft fruit, we’re into the business of selling the story behind the product.”
John sees the large number of families visiting Craigie’s as a great chance to educate youngsters on where their food comes from and how farmers help the environment. Throughout the farm, there are activities to engage families and promote produce.
Children are encouraged to become Nature Detectives and grab a map to explore a nature trail which runs round field margins. They are then challenged to match clues with brass rubbings of different animals round the track. “It spreads the message farmers do more than just produce food.
They actively help biodiversity and look after the countryside,” says John, who is director of the Royal Highland Agricultural Society. Taking about one school visit a week from April to June, John fully embraces the society’s aim of getting one-in-five children on to a farm.
He also runs the Craigie’s Education and Environment Project and works with the Criminal Justice System to get minor offenders to work there. On top of this, Craigie’s has a small number of animals, including chickens and goats. There are also five sows and a boar, owned by John’s 19-year-old son George and sold through the butcher in the farm shop.
In the pig pens, visitors can compare British welfare standards with Danish ones, with markings on the wall demonstrating the larger space provided to British reared pigs, promoting the merits of British pork. “One of the biggest challenges farmers face is the consumer being detached from how food is produced. We’re in a good position to get the message across about how food makes it to the table.”