A hotbed of farming research, people worldwide eat the fruits of Angus' labour
Whisky, luxury fruit juice and supermarket strawberries might not, on the face of it, have much in common. Yet, as Hannah Ewan learns, they’re all the focus of research and innovation being put into practice in Angus’ fields
The Scotch whisky industry needs over half a million tonnes of barley a year, and in 2011 exported a record £4.2 billion worth of the spirit – up 23 per cent on 2010. With such a valuable product at stake, it’s crucial that the country’s barley farmers are at the top of their game, both in the quality and quantity of their crop.
Which is where the James Hutton Institute (JHI) comes in. The JHI carries out research at Balruddery Farm, 118 hectares of prime arable land seven miles west of Dundee, just over the Angus boundary. Balruddery recently became part of a £1.25 million project to discover how barley genetics can be used to improve its yield, disease resistance, quality and sustainability.
This work could have come at just the right time, believes Bruce Ferguson, general manager of Angus Cereals, a cooperative of local farmers launched in 2011. Ferguson, who is also Scottish general manager of UK-wide farmers’ cooperative Openfield, hopes JHI’s research project will help with burgeoning international demand for Scotch whisky.
‘Projected demand for the end product, and therefore for the raw material, is set to increase,’ he explains. ‘What’s being looked at here is how we can enhance yield and reduce disease, and with it we will be able to have a potentially better product.
‘At face value, this is very encouraging. It’s positive for Angus Cereals growers, who are producing some of the best quality barley around, and it’s positive across the board for Scottish growers.’
The JHI’s past successes in the berry world are numerous, including breeding strains of blackcurrant that account for an impressive 95 per cent of varieties grown in the UK, and 50 per cent worldwide. They have also made a considerable difference to the fortunes of raspberry and blackberry growers, developing more flavoursome berries and higher yielding fruit plants that are better at fighting disease.
When it comes to strawberries, however, the majority of progress is made by commercial companies, and here Angus Soft Fruits take the lead. Ten years ago, the Seaton System was developed by a team of farmers working from East Seaton Farm, near Arbroath. This system of table-top polytunnel growing, that allows fruit and vegetables to be grown free of pesticide residues, has produced a successful supermarket range called Good Natured Fruit, and a variety of strawberry named AVA after the woman who first created it.
Lochy Porter, managing director of Angus Soft Fruits, was part of the original team that developed the AVA strawberry. ‘AVA made a big impact,’ he says. ‘It paved the way for the premium brand market. The main differences are the sweetness, the texture and the precise look of it – it looks nice to eat.’
AVA, and the newer strawberry varieties being developed from the AVA stable, along with popular varieties Elsanta and Sonata, are grown at East Seaton Farm. The holy grail of research, says Porter, is a fruit that is both simple and reliable to produce, but also has the taste to hook customers.
‘Strawberries are sweeter now. It’s a younger person’s taste, compared to back when they had a slight tartness to them,’ he explains. ‘AVA was a process of elimination from hundreds of thousands of varieties to just one. Now we’re doing that every year in a constantly evolving process. It’s not only about the premium variety now; you’ll see a big difference in the standard varieties over the next few years.’
The practical application of all this isn’t just a matter of satisfying demanding supermarket shoppers; there is a whole range of other businesses that rely on the best, most reliable fruit sources possible. Anne Thompson owns Brechin-based Ella Drinks, whose main product is Bouvrage, a range of berry juices that uses a higher quantity of juice than anything else currently on the market.
The trick to her vibrantly coloured and flavoured raspberry, strawberry and blaeberry juices has been finding the perfect combination of berries, something she rates more highly than any expensive production machinery. ‘The research and development being done provides a crucial supply of good fruit,’ she says. ‘The growth of Angus Soft Fruit is key to the industry’s survival. If you can’t keep plants alive you have nothing to sell. That combination of taste and the ability to grow is essential.’
Porter, like Thompson, strips away all the technicalities of growing ever more productive, tastier fruit to emphasise the fundamentally crucial nature of all this work: ‘If you produce and sell top-quality fruit, people will come back for more. If you don’t, they won’t. As well as that being a great source of satisfaction, it’s a commercial necessity. That has to be a great motivator.’