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Punnets Aplenty at the Berries

Gayle Richie, The Courier Magazine

 

The picking season is in full swing, so join us behind the scenes at Bruce Farms in Perthshire for a traditional taste of Scottish summer time.

 

Rows and rows of juicy strawberries and raspberries line the polytunnels which dominate the Perthshire landscape. It’s a sight which makes my mouth water every time I drive along the A94 between Meigle and Coupar Angus during summer.

 

Today, however, I’m at the heart of the soft fruit operation meeting some of the people at Bruce Farms who make it happen, and maybe even sampling a berry or two.

 

Field manager Charles Beamish has been up since the ungodly hour of 5.30am organising picking teams. There are 260 workers here at the peak of the season, and they hail from across the globe. “It’s like a little community, with workers of all different nationalities returning here year after year,” says Charles.

 

“There are people from Poland, Australia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and some from the UK. Many are students and some are teachers from abroad who work here during school holidays.”

 

If it is a warm day and the heat inside the polytunnels is intensified – hence the early start. I experience this as we venture inside the giant polythene tents: I’s sweating within seconds. However, the temptation to stuff handfuls of plump strawberries into my mouth is overwhelming.

 

“Feel free,” says Charles, pointing to a bright red, juicy beast. Under his instruction I grab the stem, between forefinger and thumb and pull with a twisting motion, and then eat the berry. It smells delicious aromatic and taste utterly divine – the epitome of summer.

 

That’s a result of being grown in Perthshire, which boasts a wonderfully temperate climate of soft rain, cool nights and warm summers. It’s this weather, combined with the light, free draining and fertile soil, that keeps the tasty, fresh strawberries and raspberries at their best for longer.

 

Geoff Bruce, director of Bruce Farms, says long daylight hours and moderate temperatures mean slower ripening, resulting in sweeter and juicer berries. “They’re planted in the field and picked the moment they’re ripe” he says. “They’re rapidly taken to the store so that customers can get a fresh tasting strawberry back home. They are only sold in season, which is around five months compared with five weeks around 20 years ago. That’s because we use different growing techniques.”

 

With the UK leaving the EU, are there fears that workers from Europe will be less inclined to return here?

 

Charles doesn’t think so. “I don’t this free movement of labour will stop overnight,” he says. “It’s the ideal summer job for many people, whether students or families coming here from oversees.”

 

The job of a picker is open to anyone…unless they are colourblind, says packing hall manager Gemma Rae. Hygiene is paramount, and washing stations are located around the farm and within the packing hall. Once I’ve scrubbed my hands thoroughly, I don white overalls and a somewhat unflattering green hairnet and head inside.

 

It is a veritable Charlie’s Chocolate Factory of berries, with conveyor belts of ripe strawberries and raspberries being packed and loaded into punnets by workers. I get to work helping to move the fruit but to be honest, I think I just got in the way.

 

As the punnets are stacked into boxes, Gemma reels off some stats. We process between 35,000 and 55,0000 punnets a day and while all the berries are different sizes we try to pack them so they all look roughly the same size in each punnet. We grow around 700 tonnes of strawberries and 65 tonnes of raspberries each season.”

 

With the season running until the end of September, there’s time to enjoy these succulent fruits, whether in a cheesecake or smoothie, with cream or on their own. Simply scrumptious.