An Irish firm is leading the way in Research and Development trials to produce the best tasting berries for Marks & Spencer.
Keelings, based in North County Dublin, has been supplying M&S stores with a wide range of fruit and flower produce since 2000. The company employs 2,000 people. Their berry range includes strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and gooseberries.
Andrew Wilson is the Managing Director of Keelings Farms and the head grower in charge of the Irish Berries supplied to M&S. He said: “It takes a full growing team to ensure only the freshest, ripest, tastiest berries arrive into M&S stores.
“Ireland’s notoriously erratic climate is one of the biggest variables our growing team encounters. Extreme care and attention is given to berry tending at all stages of the supply chain, whether it’s growing, picking or storing.
“All our fruit are harvested and handled as gently as possible, and then moved quickly to cold store in order to ensure freshness, great retained flavour and a good shelf-life for M&S customers. Our strawberries are graded to 28mm+ in size and, as they are grown in Ireland, have fewer miles to travel to M&S stores.”
Andy Mitchell, Produce Technologist from M&S said: “We have worked closely with Andrew and the team at Keelings for the past 15 years and have been impressed by their commitment to improving the quality of the range they supply to us.
“They have invested in state-of-the-art glasshouses which has enabled them to extend the Irish strawberry season from March through to mid-December.”
Sustainability remains a key focus for Keelings and they work closely with M&S to develop a range of Plan A compliant measures.
Andrew continues: “Our growers use natural pest control or IPM (Integrated Pest Management) sometimes called ‘pirate’ bugs. These are beneficial insects that guard our strawberries from others which damage crops, reducing the need for less natural control methods. We strive to always be at the cutting edge of entrepreneurial innovation in our growing, research and operations.”
Igor Chpak, Strawberry Glasshouse Manager at Keelings is responsible for the 26 hectares of glasshouses dedicated to soft fruit production and has been shortlisted in the Innovation category of the M&S Farming for the Future Awards 2015
Igor works closely with advisors and breeders in the UK and Europe to identify potential new plants and growing materials. At any one time he may have between 15 and 30 new varieties in the Research and Development area and in recent years has introduced strawberries that can be harvested as early as February.
Igor continues: “In the last two years we have undertaken trial work with honey bees, to improve the taste and quality of the berries. Cross pollination between plants is also possible, but the bumble bee still remains the main pollinator.
“Our work with advisors is a two-way learning process and we document everything when we’re conducting trials. It’s exciting when you find a plant that is really special, but it can then take three to four years to scale this up for commercial use. We’re always learning!”
Over the course of the Irish season, over 1,700 tons of strawberries will be grown by Keelings for M&S stores between March and the end of November.