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Essex farming: Revolution in Tiptree

PUBLISHED: 10:00 19 September 2016

EXG OCT 16 TIPTREE

EXG OCT 16 TIPTREE

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When you think of the famous Tiptree jams of Wilkin & Sons, you may first think about centuries of traditional farming and preparing the best quality fruit. But there is innovation in Tiptree too and this summer sees an exciting new growing system that may revolutionise the art of fruit picking. Sally Carpenter explains more

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While you may not think it, strawberry picking and strawberry growing has changed much from the times when pickers crouched down on soggy straw as they scrabbled along the rows to search for a few berries. But this year, on Tiptree farms, an innovative new growing system has been introduced to make the biggest change yet in the way fruit is picked – where the strawberries come to you, the picker.

Imagine walking into a huge, modern marquee-like structure where the atmosphere is pleasant and airy, even on the hottest day or the chilliest morning – perfect conditions for pickers and strawberry growing at Tiptree. This is now the reality at Tiptree where Wilkin & Sons has invested in an innovative New Growing System (NGS), which is the first of its kind in the UK, although it is similar to systems used in Spain, Portugal and South America.

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As you walk along the wide central path of the NGS ‘building’ you can see rows of thigh-high troughs, each with fruit in different stages of development. In May and June the bees were busy pollinating thousands of strawberry flowers that developed into delicious berries for the fresh fruit market. In mid-July one side of the vast NGS area had rows of empty troughs waiting to be replanted so the new strawberries would be ready for picking in September, while other troughs were overflowing with ripening berries ready for the pickers to harvest.

The new system uses growing troughs which alternately raise and lower rows of strawberry plants to both maximise the cropped area, while also allowing easy access to the pickers for harvesting, where they can stand and pick. The system makes better use of space and more than doubles the growing area as there is no longer any need to allow large alleyways between rows. The result is that instead of 50,000 plants per hectare in a traditional table top growing system, the planting density can now be increased to 100,000 plants per hectare, and possibly more, in the NGS.

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‘The NGS is a high-tech, environmentally-controlled growing tunnel. It was a substantial investment for the company and we hope to see the results of our faith in the unit over the next 12 months. Essex is one of the driest parts of the country and Tiptree has a very low rainfall, averaging 20 inches per year, so we are delighted that the new growing system is 80% self-sufficient as it uses rain water from the roof and run-off from the crop to keep the plants watered,’ explains Chris Newenham, director of Wilkin & Sons. ‘It is a highly sustainable system, maximising the growing area and minimising water use while ensuring pests and disease pressure is minimal through growing in a sealed, environmentally-controlled unit.’

Company chairman, Peter Wilkin, explains that the location of the innovative NGS is particularly pertinent as it is on land once farmed by John Joseph Mechi, an inventor and far-sighted man who understood the value of irrigation and innovation in the 1880s.

Many Essex families can recall family outings to pick strawberries and some will have been paid to pick fruit, but it was hard work crouching on the ground to pick the berries. Today most strawberries grown at Tiptree are grown at table top height, making it much easier to pick and to tend the plants.

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As the fields of fruit stretch out across the farm, visitors can see several different varieties of strawberries, each one carefully selected for their flavour and for a particular purpose: for the fresh fruit market or for the jam factory to make fine conserves such as Little Scarlet Strawberry Conserve, Tiptree Strawberry or East Anglian Strawberry Conserve. Others are grown for use in the recently released Apple and Strawberry Fruit Juice and now the new Little Scarlet Gin Liqueur.

In contrast to NGS, most of the tiny Little Scarlet Strawberries are grown on raised beds in open fields and are more vulnerable to the changes in the weather. In fact, the annual Tiptree Strawberry Race had to be postponed due to storms this year and was eventually held on June 28. The race is an opportunity to find the best and fastest picker, as well as having some fun, with pickers donning fun hats and fancy dress costumes.

Many of the traditional strawberry pickers who return in their caravans each summer to pick Little Scarlets will pick in the cool of the early morning and then have time to relax with friends on their site that overlooks the Blackwater estuary. While these traditions will continue, with the NGS, picking and growing strawberries just got a whole lot easier.

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