Growers use renewables to boost blueberry yield - Fruit & Vine

Blueberry growers harness renewable energy to boost yields

One farming couple have significantly increased their blueberry yield, by harnessing heat from their own renewable energy sources.

blueberries in a bowl on a wooden table
Stock photo

Near the Welsh border, one farming couple has embarked on a groundbreaking journey, leveraging renewable energy finance to revolutionise their soft fruit farming.

Help from UK Agricultural Finance and a Defra grant, has set the stage for the farm to become a leader in UK berry production.

The pioneering duo

Armed with Agri-food & Marketing degrees and two decades of industry experience, the pair have a commercial outlook that embraces innovation. 

Their vast network, built over years in the sector, proved invaluable as they transitioned from pig and crop farming to a more diversified model focused on fruit production.

One partner’s expertise in business development within the construction sector introduced efficiency and innovation to the farm. 

The other’s international experience in the fresh produce industry brought commercial prowess and connections to the UK’s leading retailers. 

Together, they harnessed these skills to propel their farm business forward.

READ MORE: Blueberry diversification spreads risk for arable farmers

A flourishing farm enterprise

The transformation witnessed on their farm over the past 12 years is nothing short of remarkable, says lender UKAF. 

Beginning with a modest 60 acres of grassland and a single building, they have meticulously grown their enterprise into a robust agricultural holding. 

Today, the farm boasts over 20,000 square feet of warehousing and cold storage facilities, vital for preserving the quality of their produce.

As well as 100 acres of arable land planted for maize, the couple has also nurtured a burgeoning fruit business that supplies major retailers.

The 2ha of fruit production are housed in state-of-the-art polytunnels and an additional 5ha is dedicated to the cultivation of outdoor blueberries.

By harnessing the by-product of chilled water from their ground source heat pump (GSHP), the couple has seen a dramatic energy saving of 90% for their cold storage units. 

Blueberries and heat pumps

The growers have implemented a ground source heat pump (GSHP) system, which has helped them to extend the growing season by eight weeks.

This is a significant extension to the standard 16-week timeframe.

This use of renewable energy also allows them to produce a substantially larger crop yield. 

Their sustainable practices also signal a shift towards greener practices, reducing reliance on carbon-intensive imports and bolstering local production. 

The deployment of a second, more powerful GSHP will enable them to heat more polytunnels, thereby scaling up their production capabilities.

The farm’s innovative use of thermal storage to capitalise on off-peak electricity rates further underscores its commitment to eco-friendly practices.

It’s a strategic move that aims to cement its status as the first carbon-neutral off-season fruit producer in the UK.

READ MORE: Energy support secured for horticultural businesses

Renewable energy finance for innovation

The funds from UKAF’s renewable energy finance loan of just over £1 million will repay existing debts and finance the installation of a new GSHP. 

This investment, complemented by a government grant, will catalyse the expansion of their polytunnel fruit production, setting the stage for the farm to become a leader in UK berry production.

Diversification beyond berries

The heat generated by the GSHP system has also spawned high-quality equine feed production, tapping into a market that values premium feed. 

This diversification ties in with the farm’s other income streams, including the livery yard and riding lessons. 

Meanwhile, the farm’s cold storage facilities benefit from the same system, showcasing the versatility of renewable energy in agriculture.

Nurturing talent and technology

The growers maintain strong university ties, resulting in the creation of a machine that aids outdoor fruit picking. 

They’re also collaborating on studies to develop indoor picking and packing machinery, ensuring their operations remain at the industry’s cutting edge.

Addressing labour challenges

Brexit has reshaped the agricultural labour landscape in the UK, introducing hurdles in sourcing foreign seasonal labour, which is an issue particularly acute for soft fruit farms that depend heavily on skilled pickers.

The growers on this farm have faced the challenge head-on. 

Last season’s attempt to employ UK workers highlighted a preference for shorter working weeks, which didn’t align with the farm’s operational needs, especially during peak harvest times. 

This led to the couple and their family personally stepping in to ensure no order was left unfulfilled.

However, their innovative spirits led to a proactive solution. 

One partner now works part time with an organisation dedicated to connecting pickers with farmers globally.

This role not only facilitates the logistical challenge of ensuring that pickers are available when and where they’re needed, but also ensures that these essential workers are well cared for and compensated fairly for their labour.

The investment in high quality picker accommodations on the farm helps ensure a consistent and reliable workforce. 

By paying competitive wages and offering superior accommodation, the farm has been able to attract and retain the necessary skilled workers.

A blueprint for the future

With a clear strategy to refinance to a high street lender at a later date, the couple’s dedication to sustainable agriculture and renewable energy finance is a testament to their foresight and entrepreneurial spirit.

UKAF says the farm’s story exemplifies how its renewable energy finance can be a transformative force, enabling farmers to innovate, diversify and thrive in a competitive market. 

Through renewable energy finance, the couple’s soft fruit farm is not just growing produce but cultivating a sustainable future for agriculture in the UK.

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