WATCH: Ribena berries harvested at Norfolk farm after near-perfect growing season
PUBLISHED: 15:31 20 July 2018 | UPDATED: 15:31 20 July 2018
Copyright: Archant 2018
Ripening sweetly in Norfolk's sweltering summer sun are fields of blackcurrants destined for one of the nation's most famous fruit drinks.
And while other crops have suffered in the heat, the conditions have been ideal for growing Ribena berries.
Winsford Hall in Stokesby, near Acle, is one of only 38 UK growers – six of which are in Norfolk – who produce fruit to flavour the drink first launched in 1938 and named after the botanical name for the blackcurrant, Ribes nigrum.
Third generation farmer Ed Wharton produces around 400 tonnes of berries for Ribena every year, from 200 acres of his family farm.
And he said the same weather conditions which had stilted the growth of many other cereal and vegetable crops around the county had proved to be near-perfect for this season’s blackcurrant crop, which is now being harvested.
“It has been a good year,” he said. “We had a wet summer last year, so we had good growth on the bushes. Then we had a cold winter, which the plants like, a frost-free spring and a hot and dry May and June, which is when we normally get the most disease pressure. It has been almost perfect – although we could have done with one or two rains.
“On top of all that we now have this beautiful sunny weather which increases the natural sweetness of the berries.
“I am immensely proud to be so heavily involved in the production of Ribena, and of course I drink it – we were all brought up on it, weren’t we?”
Mr Wharton grows seven varieties of blackcurrants, which ripen at different times to spread out the harvest season from the start of July to the beginning of August – a period when timing is critical to ensure the berries meet Ribena’s specification.
“The fruit at the top of the plant gets fit before the lower boughs, but the contract is for ‘99pc black’, so we have got to wait for those berries on the lower boughs to be black before we harvest,” said Mr Wharton.
Despite the heat, the plants are only irrigated after the harvest, he said, as there is a risk the water could knock the fruit from the branches, and spread diseases.
As well as blackcurrants, the farm grows a diverse range of crops which also includes barley, wheat, oilseed rape, potatoes, sugar beet, vining peas and mint for Colman’s sauces.
“It spreads the risk,” said Mr Wharton. “My grandfather Charles was particularly into diversification – he had everything from gooseberries to cabbages.
“His great saying was he wanted to be able to sell something off the farm every day of the year, whether it was milk, eggs, blackcurrants or gooseberries. We have continued that, but over the years we had to become more specialised.”
Like all of Ribena’s growers, Mr Wharton also follows a six-point sustainability plan to protect the farm’s wildlife, which includes maintaining hedgerows and grass margins, and erecting 200 bird boxes.
THE RIBENA BERRY HARVEST
Norfolk’s six Ribena growers produce about 20pc of the national blackcurrant tonnage, averaging around 2,000 tonnes a year – enough to make 300,000 litres of blackcurrant concentrate.
At Stokesby, Ed Wharton still uses vintage Smallford harvesters, built in the mid 1970s – including one which is in its 43rd season.
The machines’ vibrating arms shake the boughs, knocking the blackcurrants onto conveyor belts, while the leaves are blown out by fans.
Four workers on the back of each machine – including Mr Wharton’s three daughters Ella, Poppy and Rosie – pick out leaves and twigs as the berries are transferred into containers.
“These machines are old, but they still do a great job,” said Mr Wharton. “The older ones have got more clearance and they pick just as well as the newer ones – some would argue better. There will come a day when we have to retire them, but we keep them going by either making the parts ourselves or cannibalising other old machines.”
Each machine can harvest five acres a day, gathering 15 tonnes of berries. They are transported within 24 hours to the Thatchers Cider mill in Somerset, where they are pressed into liquid for the final product, which is bottled in Gloucestershire.
• Winsford Hall in Stokesby is hosting a Big Berry Bash open day from 11am-3pm on Saturday July 28 to show visitors how Ribena berries are grown and harvested. Places are limited to 150, so visitors must register at the Ribena website to guarantee their place.