Strawberry fields forever? The polytunnel debate

The great debate over the use of polytunnels in strawberry growing has unearthed a deep divide, as Westminster and even Wimbledon join a battle that could be decided in the law courts, writes Martin Hickman

Monday 26 June 2006 00:00

As the crowds at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon anticipate Roger Federer's opening match against the unfancied Frenchman Richard Gasquet today, another, less publicised tussle is taking place eight miles away in Westminster.

At stake is not the future of SW19's tennis championships, but something with which it is inextricably linked in the public mind: strawberries.

Each summer the tennis fans, celebrities and sponsorship guests lucky enough to gain entry to the fortnight-long spectacle gorge themselves on 7,000 litres of cream and 27,000 kilogrammes of strawberries.

They are in good company, for demand for strawberries is growing. The strawberry certainly has a good press. Public and politicians usually agree that it is an unmistakable treat, frequently home-grown, rich in vitamins and antioxidants. It is reckoned that five strawberries contain more antioxidant power than three apples or four bananas. And the British strawberry business is worth about £157m a year.

Yet there are rumblings of discontent in the countryside about this most English of summer fruits, and the insurrection has reached the benches of the Commons chamber itself.

Motions have been laid, speeches made and questions asked about something which is, unusually in the world of politics, transparent: polytunnels.

Since their introduction for soft fruit 13 years ago, arcs of plastic sheeting have marched across the countryside like a conquering army, to the pleasure of farmers and the anger of campaigners. Polytunnels are used to grow crops from lettuce to onions, but are particularly prevalent in berry production where they are credited with almost eliminating wet weather diseases.

Farmers like them because they shelter delicate fruit plants from the ravages of Britain's wet and sometimes wild climate. Yields go up as storm damage goes down; the plastic tents help farmers make a living in the rainy northern hemisphere.

Yet polytunnels are controversial, particularly with country-dwellers whose views of rolling fields have been ruined by plastic sheeting.

The Campaign To Protect Rural England says although polytunnels "have their place" in the landscape, they should be subject to planning permission.

Local groups scattered across England are infuriated by the fact that some councils do not require farmers to get permission for polytunnels, while other authorities do.

For instance, the 80 families in the Tuesley Farm Campaign are demanding the local planning process pass judgement on the acres of "hideous" plastic on the farm near Guildford in Surrey, which supplies Waitrose.

In Herefordshire, the Wickton Action Group wants planning controls and has the public backing of the garden writer and local resident, Monty Don.

One protester - Val Salisbury, 69 - was so annoyed that sheuprooted 200 strawberry plants while foreign workers looked on in bafflement. Mrs Salisbury dismissed the farm's telephone description of her to police as "an elderly and confused lady".

She said residents were "shattered" by the impact of hundreds of acres of polytunnels around their homes and the consequent heavy traffic from lorries and workers' buses.

She told the Hereford Times: "They are making a mess of this beautiful countryside. We don't need it." Into this fevered atmosphere gingerly step-ped Bill Wiggin, MP for the Herefordshire town of Leominster and the Conserv-ative spokesman for agriculture.

He said it was "unfair" his constituents had no say over whether polytunnels sprang up and complained that 1,700 eastern European strawberry pickers were being accommodated in makeshift villages of 400 caravans, leisure centres, football pitches and saunas - all without planning permission.

Raising a spectre guaranteed to raise the hackles of Middle England, Mr Wiggin said that some local residents had seen the value of their houses plummet 30 per cent.

He also ventured something that surprised and delighted his political enemies: he had been so annoyed by the problems, he said, he has been boycotting British strawberries for the past four years. He did not ask the public to replicate his gesture.

Nevertheless, the very notion of the Conservatives' agriculture spokesman boycotting British crops was incendiary.

The National Farmers' Union described Mr Wiggin's decision not to support British strawberries as "irresponsible".

British Summer Fruits, which represents fruit growers, fulminated that the desire to champion the concerns of a few constituents was "in direct conflict" with his Shadow Cabinet role.

It said: "The industry is now seriously questioning his suitability to speak on farming issues in a national capacity."

At Westminster, Labour sensed a gaffe. A backbencher recently inquired of a minister whether the Government supported the consumption of British fruit. Then Paddy Tipping, a Labour MP, tabled an Early Day Motion, the preferred parliamentary device for achieving quick publicity, condemning Mr Wiggin's comments and mounting a stout defence of polytunnels.

So far 24 MPs (all Labour) have signed the motion which "repudiates the call from the Hon Member for Leominster for a boycott of English strawberries".

In a tit-for-tat move, the Tory MP, David Jones, tabled another Early Day Motion (signed by 11 Conservative MPs) that recognises Mr Wiggin "never called for a boycott of English strawberries and notes that the Hon Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) was informed that the Hon Member for Leominster had not called for such a boycott before Early Day Motion 2,334 was tabled." It called on Mr Tipping to withdraw his motion.

It is thought to have been the brainchild of Labour whips; Mr Tipping said this weekend he had a "discussion" with them.

Away from the gamesmanship of SW1, the affair has boosted the profile of the campaign against polytunnels, which raises many questions pertinent to the future of the countryside.

Should the traditional character of the landscape - the rolling fields, stone walls, hedgerows - be allowed to change to fit the needs of modern farming? Should we buy British not just to be patriotic but to stop climate change? Or is food grown abroad with better climates less damaging because it has higher yields?

The biggest supplier of strawberries to Wimbledon has now entered the debate, firmly on the side of polytunnels. Making plastic sheeting subject to planning permission could put growers out of business, Phil Boddington, the owner of Boddington's Berries, warned.

Mr Boddington, who farms at Mevagissey in Cornwall, argued that only by covering the plants could British growers produce enough good strawberries to compete with foreign suppliers.

"If that changes, they will all just be imported instead," he warned. "It will be a similar story to the UK apple business where production is down 70 per cent.

"No planning will be passed and there will be no strawberries grown."

He recalled that a type of, albeit smaller, polytunnel had been used by his grandfather. "The industry is completely run by market forces," he said.

"At the moment people in the supermarkets want to buy English strawberries and so they are going off the shelves and the agents for the supermarkets are asking for more. It's a growing industry but if they can't put polytunnels on them then supermarkets won't buy them."

Polytunnels have drastically extended the fruit growing season, from May to mid-autumn, when once it was limited to eight weeks in June and July. Moreover the use of pesticides has halved because lower moisture levels reduces the need to spray against such evils as grey mould, downy mildew and black spot.

Perhaps most importantly for growers, polytunnels increase the proportion of top-quality fruit. According to British Summer Fruits, prior to the introduction of polytunnels in England, only 50 per cent of the soft fruit was grade 1 (the type demanded by the store chains). Now it is 90 per cent.

The industry says there are safeguards for the public. The NFU/British Summer Fruits' code of practice says farmers must not site polytunnels within 30 metres of the boundary of the nearest home, unless the residents' view is not obscured or they do not object. The extra run-off of rain should be managed properly and noise kept to a minimum between 8pm and 7am.

If these rules are followed, growers believe the soft fruit industry can co-exist with residents demanding peace and beauty.

Which may be because we are eating strawberries in ever increasing quantities. Sales have increased by 130 per cent in the past four years.

Demand is being propelled by increasing quality, a desire to spurn air-freighted crops that contribute to climate change, and healthy eating.

Health is a particularly important reason for the strawberry's ascendancy. Strawberries have more vitamin by weight than oranges, have a low glycaemic rating and are rich in zinc and folic acid.

Will this super-fruit remain a pride of British agriculture?

Who wins the war of the polytunnel may ultimately depend on legal action. In Waverley, Surrey, the Hall Hunter Partnership - a large grower - is going to the Court of Appeal to fight a decision by the local council that polytunnels require planning permission.

Whether tennis fans will be eating British strawberries in years to come may be decided not on a grass court but in a law court.

Britain's soft spot

* For 2006, British Summer Fruits, the industry body for fruit growers, predict sales of more than 50,000 tons of UK-grown strawberries. In the record-breaking year of 2003, when sales rose 30 per cent, 30,700 tons of British strawberries were sold

* In 2005, the British strawberry market was worth £157m

* In 2003, 0.02 per cent of the UK crop was organic

* The South-east produces 28 per cent of the crop

* The soft fruit industry employs 5,000 full-time staff and 50,000 seasonal workers

* An acre of strawberries needs 1,000 gallons of water a day

* The strawberry is a member of the rose family and is the only fruit with seeds on the outside. It is high in vitamin C, folic acid and fibre, and low in calories

* Strawberries were cultivated by the Romans from 200BC. In medieval times they were regarded as an aphrodisiac

* 28,000kg of strawberries will be eaten at Wimbledon.

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