Today I was lucky to meet and talk to John Hinchliff, who is a fruit farmer in Kent, supplying Ribena with blackcurrants and many supermarkets with fresh fruit.
It was so interesting to get an insight into life as a British fruit farmer, from coping with the unpredictable weather to coping with the unpredictable retailer demand!
John talked about how many consumers have long forgotten seasonality, and how our expectation on retailers to consistently supply seasonal fruit, leads to buyers looking abroad. However, even when British fruit is in season, these foreign farms can still produce more reliable and cheaper produce. This means British farmers have to compete all year round to ensure that their produce is competitively priced and can be relied upon to deliver flavourful, perfect shaped, sized and coloured, long season fruit.
This high pressure causes British farmers to consistently find solutions to improve their crop. A poor harvest one year not only is devastating at the time, but can affect a farmers relationship with the retailers for years to come. From growing cherries in poly tunnels, to only selecting apples that have the perfect ratio of green to red, these measures can come at a cost, both economically and environmentally. And to ensure the perfect fresh fruit harvest, hand pickers are employed to carefully pluck the best fruit off the trees.
In the UK, farm labourers receive a higher wage. This is obviously great news for them, however it does mean that farmers have to be efficient with their worker's time, and only pick the best fruit. Unfortunately, the fruit that doesn't make the cut, is too expensive to harvest if only to be sold for cider, desserts or condiments. The reason for this is because other farmers who are specifically growing fruit for these products, use purpose specific varieties and machine harvesters. Therefore they can sell the produce to manufacturers for a fraction of the cost compared to hand picked fruit.
So here lies the issue - perfectly edible fruit that doesn't make the cut purely due to the colouring, shape or size is left as waste. Therefore, reducing both the energy and cost efficiency of the farm. But what can we do as consumers? 1. Buy seasonal! Get to know what's in season and enjoy it! If you need help with seasonal recipes - check out greeneating.co.uk! 2. Shop local! Find out what the farms around you are growing and where you can buy it. Many farms have a shop or stall, either on site or at a farmers market. Look on labels in the supermarkets too to find produce from the UK. 3. Good quality food doesn't deserve to be cheap. Of course there is a balance, but paying a little more for quality seasonal fruit is a great way to support the farmers, allowing them to make money from the not so perfect produce too.
I'm sure I'll be down in Kent again, even if to just steal cherries off John's trees - they truly were the best I've tasted! You never know, the cherries in your fridge may be his too!