A family-run farm which uses innovative growing techniques to enable it to produce strawberries for nine months of the year has picked its very first fruits in time for the Queen’s Club Tennis Championship.
Oxfordshire-based Middle Farm, which diversified to launch Featherbed Fruits, has state-of-the-art, two-acre greenhouses housing almost 80,000 strawberry plants.
The Mixbury farm has been run by the Rymer family for almost 100 years and grows a range of crops across just over 800 acres of land.
The business also operates five B&B units, ranging from shepherd’s huts to luxury glamping tents, and a 7,000 sq ft office complex.
When looking for an alternative enterprise to continue to sustain the business, considering the current challenges in the industry, third-generation farmer Harry Rymer looked into the possibility of growing soft fruits.
The family instructed property consultancy Fisher German to prepare and submit a planning application for two acres of polytunnels.
Despite the plans being recommended for refusal by council officers, the firm’s planning team demonstrated the positive impacts the scheme would have to achieve unanimous approval.
This included the contribution towards a stable local food economy which is less reliant on global imports, the creation of 15 jobs and the impact on education, with school visits planned to educate children about locally sourced food.
The first strawberry plants, made up of both Everbearing June-bearing crops, were planted in February 2022 in a hydroponic, soil-free system consisting of coconut husk and irrigated rainfall collected from the roof.
The temperature and humidity are monitored using a climate controller to ensure the optimum growing condition for the strawberry plants all year round.
The double layer of poly for added insulation is also one of very few in the country and will help the business reduce energy use.
The farm, which has now welcomed its first strawberries, is working with a company which caters for large-scale sporting events, with the fruit set to be used at this year’s Queen’s Club Tennis Championship.
The forward-thinking project has also been shortlisted for an award in the South East Royal Town Planning Institute’s Excellence in Planning Awards, in the Successful Economy Award category.
Harry Rymer said he wanted something which utilised new technologies to push boundaries, while demonstrating that soft fruits can be grown almost all year round.
“It’s a positive way to generate income and means that we can contribute to the country being less reliant on imports, something that will only become increasingly important in the future," he said.
“Growing in coconut husks is an innovate technique which gives a complete blank slate, so we don’t have to investigate what is already in the soil and we’re less reliant on pesticides.
“After investing in the polytunnels and equipment, we also wanted something which could generate a good income in our first year, so we’re very happy to see our very first strawberries ripen."
He said utilising new technologies was 'certainly' the future of farming and something which more people in the industry needed to do.
“We now look forward to continuing to grow the fruit throughout the future months," Harry added.