Polytunnel Code of Practice

Specific Benefits of Polytunnels

Polytunnels allow the fruit farmer to:-

  • Extend the fruit season from May to mid-autumn where once it was limited to eight weeks in June and July. This means that British berries can dominate a market place once filled with fruit imported from Spain, France and America.
  • Guarantee quality in a market that demands very high standards. Berries are nutritious, as well as delicious fruits, and thanks to an assured level of quality and availability provided by protecting the fruit with polytunnels, supermarkets increasingly provide more shelf space to them. The increase in sales of British strawberries reflects the public’s demand for them.
  • Guarantee competitive prices in a market beset with price increases. The introduction of the polytunnel has reduced wastage, increased yields and enabled labour costs to be kept under control. The price of a punnet of strawberries bought through a supermarket has remained stable for the last ten years.
  • Reduce the use of pesticides by up to 50%. The polytunnel protects the fruit from moisture which reduces the need tospray with chemicals to prevent diseases such as botrytis, (grey mould) downy mildew and black spot. They also provide an environment conducive to the use of natural pest control where one insect is used to target another in a confined area. This includes the encouragement of predatory insects as a biological control against spider mites and thrips. ‘Beetle-banks’ are made to house the ground beetles which are natural predators of the weevils and slugs that attack soft fruits.
  • Produce and develop organically grown plants. Organic farming is certified by the Soil Association and, though organic farmed produce still only represents 3% of total sales, berry farmers are responding to the demand from consumers who wish to buy food grown without the use of artificial chemicals. The use of polytunnels are essential to these endeavors because they are a natural way to protect the plants from disease and from the weather.

    As supermarkets stock organic food, so soft fruit farmers are expected to grow crops both conventionally and organically. They would not be able to produce organically grown berries to the necessary commercial quality and yield without the use of crop protection.
  • Increase employment and strengthen rural economies. The success of the soft fruit industry has enabled farms to employ 5,000 more staff on a permanent basis and 50,000 on a seasonal basis. Harvesting soft-fruit is labour intensive as every berry needs to be picked by hand. Approximately 15,000 of the 50,000 seasonal workers are foreign students employed through the Home Office approved, and monitored, Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS). The scheme employs students from non-EU countries who are all in full-time education in their home countries and requires that they return no later than 6 months after arriving in the UK.

The British soft fruit industry, a capital and labour intensive industry, comprised of family owned and run farms has become an important and successful rural business able to meet the challenges of a very demanding marketplace. Polytunnels are essential to this. Without them the quality and yields for commercial production could not be achieved and supermarkets would buy imported fruit over British-grown.

Polytunnels have enabled the UK soft fruit business to become recognised as one of the most innovative in the world, attracting younger horticulturists with modern skills. They could, and probably would, transfer abroad in the event that UK farms were prevented from meeting consumer demand. This means that Britain's young fruit farmers would be forced to aid in the production of competing imports by investing in EU farms and supplying the UK supermarkets from these rather than farming at home.

If the industry were unable to use the essential crop protection polytunnels provide, it would undoubtedly revert to the situation of the mid-nineties where imported fruit would once again dominate our supermarket shelves. The difference now is that the volumes would be at far greater levels than experienced before due to the demand that the UK growers have created for high quality berries. The ultimate result would be the end of a successful British soft fruit industry and yet another agricultural failure.

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