strawberries + plastic: are tunnels worth the eyesore?

With the arrival of new season crops, the boxes are looking full and varied; we have bridged the hungry gap and as we get into summer the variety will only improve. The new potatoes are still from the Channel Islands but we start our own next week. Similarly, the bunched carrots in some boxes are the survivors of the largely failed crop in France. We will pull our own for next week. To keep them at their best, twist off and discard the tops to prevent them drawing moisture from the roots.

Over the last twenty years the huge majority of the UK strawberry crop has moved from open fields to the protection and intensification afforded by hundreds of acres of polytunnels, largely in Kent and Herefordshire. Plastic can advance a crop by perhaps two weeks, but the great advantage is the protection it gives from the vagaries of a British summer. Fruit must be picked dry to avoid bruising and to give a reasonable shelf life. Even more importantly, persistent dampness leads to a build-up of fungal disease, particularly botrytis, which can reduce a good berry to a foul tasting pulp in a matter of hours.

Our strawberries are grown extensively on high ridges at wide spacing which, in a normal year, gives enough airflow to dry dews and rain before botrytis sets in. There can be no doubt that polytunnels are a blot on the landscape; the question is whether they are justified by the economic and environmental benefit they bring by reducing wastage, extending the UK season, excluding exports and thus reducing food miles. For twenty years I have stubbornly persisted with growing outdoors, with the result that we have a relatively short season and, over the last few years, have not been able to pick up to a third of the fruit. Initially I was convinced that growing outdoors gave better flavour, but now I am not so sure and wonder if I have been overly dogmatic in my resistance. Across the five regional farms we would need eight acres of tunnels to provide a good supply of strawberries for the 45,000 homes we deliver to each week. Your views would be welcome; join the debate at <a href="http://blog.riverford.co.uk">blog.riverford.co.uk</a>.

Guy Watson