Estela Cuesta of FoodNews visited Chambers HQ to interview Tim about where we are in the UK berry market and our plans and innovations for the future, including the newly launched Fruitery.
Alternatively, a snippet of the interview is here:
Interview: Chambers keeping pace with UK berry market momentum
The berry industry in the UK could be worth more than GBP1.6 billion by 2020, from GBP600 million in 2007, according to Kantar
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• 21 Feb 2019 •
Estela Cuesta @EstelaFoodnews Estela.Cuesta@informa.com
Despite the UK berry production remaining stable at around 170,000 tonnes for the last three years – based on Eurostat data –, domestic demand is accelerating, with traditional growers leaving seasonality boundaries behind to compete in a window that is open for 52 weeks per annum.
The UK-based soft fruit growing company Chambers, set up in 1952, specialises in raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, cherry and, more recently, blueberry production. Being involved in fruit production for many generations while keeping the main focus on the UK market, this summer Chambers is launching The Fruitery, a ready-to-eat division producing a range of berry snack pots for supermarkets’ own labels.
Managing director Tim Chambers told IEG Vu at Fruit Logistica, held in Berlin earlier this month, about his experiences of being a UK berry grower in such a commoditised growing market and shared some future business project ideas.
What is The Fruitery’s contribution to Chambers?
We have been thinking for many years about how we can add value to what we do, differentiating ourselves from other berry growers. Within the UK, the cost of labour is rising and more and more berries that are grown tend to become commoditised, so the price is not going to go up. They only way we can earn the money is either by reducing costs or by adding value. The Fruitery is a way we can actually add some value to what we do. Because we grow all the berries, we only need to import in the seasons that we are not growing… It is a farming venture, not a factory or an industrial site just bringing in fruit from other hemispheres. We are in production now for The Fruitery, working to get BRC certification as soon as possible. We are having good conversations with supermarkets and hopefully will be launching with them in the UK summer. It is going to be mainly own label, allowing us to keep our overheads low. We are talking to companies in France already, so definitely exporting too, as long as Brexit allows. Then we want to have branded products as well, which will be something associated with the Fruitery.
Is Chambers’ own production increasing?
We have increased quite a lot. The demand is still growing, so we are investing what we can every year to increase our production. In tonnage, we produce 2,500 tonnes of raspberries (180 hectares), 1,000 tonnes of strawberries (20 ha), 400 tonnes of blackberries (20 ha), 200 tonnes of rhubarb (20 ha) and about 200 tonnes of cherries (25 ha), a couple of hundred tonnes of apples (for the Fruitery) and the rest is in rotation ready for production. Raspberry and blueberry sales in the UK market increased by 20% in 2017. The demand for blueberries is also there, but it is more related to supply.
The fresh soft fruit consumption is no longer seasonality in Europe, especially in the UK. How does Chambers compete in this year-round market?
We partner with growers in every continent and this is a growing part of our business. The UK supermarket customers want to build relationships with producers. Instead of a marketing agent in charge of logistics among other tasks, now supermarkets look at their suppliers, like us. If a supermarket can speak to the local UK farmer, who already can pack and distribute, and at the same time the local farmer can speak to other farmers in other countries, why do they need somebody in the middle? All the functions still have to be done, but now are done within the farming company as opposed to outside. That change accelerated in the last three years because everyone is trying to keep costs down. Whereas our UK season is restricted from May to November, there is no reason why we shouldn’t import from December through to April, because we understand the product and we are already packing, so it is a natural extension of our farming group to become more than just a UK producer.
What are the advantages of producing berries in the UK?
As you can fill the blueberry window of UK production by importing from Poland, Holland and then Peru is coming earlier and earlier with global market prices often very tough for UK producers to match, there is no real strong reason to produce in the UK unless you are trying to protect yourself from shortages on the import side. For raspberries, which is Chambers’ biggest product, the advantage is being closer to the market. Production costs are high even to bring it in from other countries because it has to be airfreighted, as well as have a much shorter self-life. Being close to your market also restricts third party countries putting their product into the UK, and the seasonality of the UK means the only other producers at the moment are the northern European countries, whose production is mostly absorbed by domestic consumption. Regarding strawberries, the domestic consumer wants to buy UK strawberries, such as at Wimbledon, and you will always have a place for that. Blackberries are quite low volume compared with other berries: probably less than 5% of the market, so there is no special interest in importers selling into the UK. Each has its own reasons for being or not for being a future UK product.
Are there any disadvantages?
Our weather can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. It is good because it doesn’t get too hot, apart from last year, between 25° and 28°, which is quite a good temperature for growing soft fruits. We have a reputation for having a lot of rain but it actually not that bad and everything we grow is under tents, so there is no worry that rain will destroy the harvest. Other things I can think of are labour costs and labour shortages, which are a European problem and not just a UK issue, so I don’t think there is any disadvantage to growing berries in the UK.
What markets do you target in Europe?
I don’t really have a strategy in Europe. Wherever there is an opportunity, we will look at it seriously. With or without Brexit, we look at the UK because this country can take 95% of what the industry produces, we have a strong home market. But as the growers get bigger, everyone is looking to the whole of Europe. And we have regular enquiries from the Middle East, Japan, etc. Globally, you can feel that there are countries out there where berry consumption is very low but are potential markets as the standards of living in countries such as India or China are rising.
Is the organic raspberry market profitable?
I have never been attracted to it. The losses can be higher if you can’t use chemical pesticides, it has always been a premium market and, as a grower, I think setting yourself up for just a small area of the market means you are adding risk to your business. Everything needs to be in the middle of the market, so volume, acceptable varieties and low cost: organic doesn’t fit any of these for me… maybe I am not ideological enough to follow it. You can grow organic blueberries easier than other berries, as Chile does. Strawberries and raspberries are harder. If the UK consumer decided that they were going 90% organic, I would be organic. Anyway, every year the number of pesticides producers can use become more specific by only affecting one particular insect and I think we, as conventional growers, are slowly going towards organic production by legislation.
Being a UK grower, is Brexit an opportunity or an issue?
For my business, in the short-term, it is definitely a problem. We import fruits as well as produce, so we can hedge slightly against what might happen. You really have to look at everything as an opportunity. Where anything changes, there is always an opportunity.