Berry nice! The strawberry season is here

112059-057_CS_STRAWBERRIES_SR_7/6/11'at N & D West Strawberry Growers in Titchfield.''Picture:Steve Reid 112059-057
112059-057_CS_STRAWBERRIES_SR_7/6/11'at N & D West Strawberry Growers in Titchfield.''Picture:Steve Reid 112059-057

LETTER OF THE DAY: I could have easily dodged the train fare

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While most of us are dreaming of summer picnics and the thud of tennis balls on pristine lawns, the West family are hard at work in the fields.

Dad, mum and son are up with the lark, or rather the ripening strawberry, to make sure there are enough punnets to meet demand.

112059-082_CS_STRAWBERRIES_SR_7/6/11'Jimmy West at N & D West Strawberry Growers in Titchfield.''Picture:Steve Reid 112059-082

112059-082_CS_STRAWBERRIES_SR_7/6/11'Jimmy West at N & D West Strawberry Growers in Titchfield.''Picture:Steve Reid 112059-082

On the family’s Titchfield farm, there’s a sweet scent filling the air as the last of the current crop hang ripe, richly-coloured and ready for picking.

These plump, juicy strawberries sum up images of early summer, Wimbledon and well, okay then, rain. But for the fruit farmers they’re a reminder that the hard work won’t cease soon.

Nick and Debbie West and their son Jimmy produce about 75,000 punnets a year and with about 12 fruits to a punnet, that’s 900,000 strawberries to be picked.

‘We work very long days, we have to,’ says Nick. ‘We’re up really early as soon as it’s light and often don’t stop until the sun goes down.’

Not that they’re doing all this alone. They have a workforce, albeit one that does exactly what it pleases, eats the produce at any opportunity and gets under the family’s feet.

But the farm’s 16 bantams are invaluable, says Debbie. ‘They’re my girls,’ she laughs, explaining: ‘They work with us on the floor, picking up bugs and pests. It’s very handy, they’re particularly good for getting rid of vine weevils. They will come up to us and hang around though if they fancy a strawberry, waiting for us to drop one on the floor.’

Our thoughts are just turning to bowls of strawberries and cream and summer puddings, but Nick, Debbie and Jimmy have been hard at it for weeks.

There have been many reports of a bumper crop thanks to this year’s early sunshine. But Nick says it’s simply an earlier crop, and that isn’t great news for this fruit farming family.

‘Our niche is that we produce earlier than other people, because we have the glasshouses,’ he says. ‘So it isn’t really good news for us. But these are the kinds of things we deal with, the market and conditions change all the time.’

Having been in the industry since he was 16, Nick has learnt to take the rough with the smooth.

The origins of the business, now known as N & D West Strawberry Growers, lie with Nick’s grandfather Charlie – a gardener at Catisfield House who grew strawberries in glasshouses to serve the house.

But it was his father Bob who turned strawberry-growing into a business in the 1940s. Nick began helping out at an early age.

‘I was growing when I was eight years old, my dad gave me some plants. And then I had my own but of land where I grew them and sold them to the neighbours up the lane,’ he recalls.

Nick took over the running of the business when he was just 16 and now son Jimmy has joined the four-generation trade. He was just eight when he was out picking before heading off to Titchfield Primary School.

This family business is part of the area’s heritage. The land at Titchfield, Locks Heath, Swanwick, Sarisbury and Warsash has a long strawberry-growing history.

Thanks to the mild climate and the gravelly soil, which is excellent for drainage and warms up quickly, strawberry growers in the area have been producing crops earlier than anyone else for well over 100 years.

It was once a thriving industry which saw thousands of tonnes of fruit being sent to London and around the country from Swanwick train station. In 1931 1.7 million baskets of fruit left the station on what became known as the Strawberry Specials.

By the 1970s the railways were no longer being used for deliveries and Nick remembers the formation of the Fruit Freight. About 40 of the area’s growers united to press for transportation facilities and eventually began loading on to large container lorries on land at Swanwick station.

‘I remember loading them with about 5,000 trays a day,’ says Nick. ‘Of course I was only about 16 then.’

Work in the fields was also punishing. He remembers long days spent hoeing and weeding when everything was planted in the ground.

Plenty of casual pickers were once available, but Nick says by the 1980s less people wanted the work. This led in part to the decline of the local industry and the selling of strawberry-growing land for housing.

In an area around Titchfield where there was once more than 80 producers, there are now just four major growers.

Of course, lots of things have changed. The strawberry plants now sit in peat bags at shoulder level. Protected by either the glasshouses or polytunnels, they can produce for a lot longer than people think.

The strawberry season here starts at about the beginning of May and lasts for a few months. But there is another crop in the late summer.

For the family, there is enough work to keep them busy all year. When they aren’t picking, they are planting in preparation for new crops, and doing maintenance work.

‘People think this is part-time, just to earn a few pennies for a few months. That makes us laugh,’ says Debbie.

But they love the work. Debbie points to the perfect plump, shiny strawberries that have just been picked. ‘People have asked if we stay up all night polishing them, but they look like that because they have been picked at exactly the right time and they’re really fresh.’

Like many producers, strawberry growers face competition from supermarkets. But Debbie says there is a big difference between the produce available there and what comes straight from the growers.

‘You won’t find anything as shiny or sweet. That’s because they are put in coolers which dulls their appearance and flavour.’

Most of the West’s produce goes to farm shops in Hampshire and Sussex. They are also regulars at local farmer’s markets.

‘We love going to those, talking to the customers and giving them advice,’ says Debbie. ‘It’s the part of the job that I like best.’

‘We seem to have come full circle in many ways,’ adds Nick. ‘Selling straight to the customer like they did years ago and using glasshouses like my grandfather, everything seems to come around again.’

The family say people show a lot more interest in the food they buy these days. But there’s nobody with more focus then the pecking, clucking bantams, who continue with the task at hand, keeping the plants pest-free and ready to produce delectable fruit.

Meanwhile, Nick, Debbie and Jimmy head back to work – ready to pick a punnet or several thousand.