British blackcurrant production on show at international grower meeting
19th June 2023
The International Blackcurrant Conference returned to Herefordshire this year with an inspiring two-day programme featuring talks from industry experts, a presentation on different weed control methods, harvest forecasts and visits to three prominent UK fruit farms.
Organised by the International Blackcurrant Association (IBA) in collaboration with Whittern Farms and Pixley Berries, the conference welcomed 60 delegates from nine different member countries, with good representation across the northern hemisphere grower regions.
Prior to the pandemic, IBA conferences were held every two years over the span of four days, with the objective being to promote long-lasting partnerships between growers, agronomists and processors, along with sustainable blackcurrant production worldwide.
However, following disruptions caused by covid-19, the association has decided to host more compact two-day conferences annually. This year’s event followed the 2022 grower meeting in Miltenberg, Germany, which was organised at the last minute after the conference in Lviv, Ukraine, was cancelled due to the ongoing war.
Taking place on Monday 5th and Tuesday 6th June, this year’s IBA grower meeting commenced with a visit to Pixley Berries in Ledbury, who are specialist suppliers of bulk-packed aseptic juice. All blackcurrants grown at the farm are used in their own juice production, serving a range of well-known brands and retailers from Innocent Drinks to craft producers.
Starting with a tour of the on-site pressing factory, managing director Anna Ralph gave a detailed breakdown of the process before presenting various finished products made from ‘not from concentrate’ juice as well as Pixley’s own fruit cordials.
Delegates then enjoyed a visit to the farm’s blackcurrant plantations and heard talks form industry professionals. First up, Michael Garnier from Valagro, one of the event’s sponsors, explained how Pixley Berries have been using biostimulants and bud break technology to encourage vigour in plantations with excellent results.
Next, Jonathan Blackman from Hutchinsons talked to the group about phosphorus deficiency that was found in the fruit and subsequent juice produced on the farm, which has since been corrected through leaf applications.
On the evening of day one, delegates gathered at the nearby Whittern Farms in Lyonshall for an enjoyable dinner hosted by White Heron Properties. The blackcurrant theme was maintained throughout the evening, with delegates treated to a Kir Royale welcome drink, mixed using British Cassis and Fitz sparkling wine, and complemented by blackcurrants and grapes grown at the estate.
During the evening, the now former IBA president Florent Baillard awarded Edward Thompson of Pixley Berries honoury membership in recognition of his involvement in the association, his commitment and dedication to the global blackcurrant industry and his tireless efforts to promote collaboration and knowledge exchange between grower countries.
As a founding member of the IBA in 1993, Mr. Thompson’s well-deserved accolade brought the evening to a memorable close.
Day two – the momentum continues
The second day began with an insightful tour of Whittern Farms, a fourth-generation family farm owned by the Hilditch family. The business produces most of its blackcurrant crop for Ribena, the brand that dominates the UK market by utilising 90% of all blackcurrants grown in the country.
Led by farm manager and IBA secretary James Wright, the tour showcased the farm’s newest varieties and was followed by a presentation from Juliet Poirier on different weeding methods. Her talk incorporated a survey of blackcurrant growers throughout Europe and focused on best practice, key challenges, and the future of weed control post-glyphosate.
The IBA general grower meeting was then held, which saw Guillaume Marie elected as the new president of the association. The morning programme for day two was wrapped up by a presentation of harvest forecasts for 2023.
After lunch, the group visited Windmill Hill Fruits, the largest organic blackcurrant producer in the UK, comprising 356 acres of which 122 are certified Soil Association organic. Owned by Anthony and Christine Snell, the business supplies supermarkets and catering companies with high-quality frozen fruit.
Mr Snell was involved with the IBA as president from 2016-2018 and is also chairman of the NFU Horticulture Board for the west Midlands and member of the Soil Association Organic Farmer and Grower Board.
During the visit, delegates toured the farm’s plantations that produce sustainable Suntory blackcurrants for Ribena, as well as berries for IQF frozen fruit packs. Visitors were also invited to view the organic blackcurrant fields that supply the yoghurt brand Yeo Valley and were featured on BBC Inside the Factory earlier this year.
In addition, the tour featured Windmill Hill’s harvesting machinery, high-pressure water reader and blast-freezing IQF plant and packhouse.
Commenting on the conference, James Wright of Whittern Farms said: “The whole basis of the event was to get as many industry professionals as we could in the field with everybody, with the focus being on in-field discussion rather than PowerPoint presentations, it was more a promotion of knowledge exchange through open discussion.
“Feedback has been very very good, and I think the event was a great success. I haven’t spoken to a grower who hasn’t taken something away from it.”
The next IBA conference focusing on organic blackcurrant growing will be held in Graz, Austria, on 11th to 14th June 2024.