Peter Thompson is a soft fruit farmer in Blairgowrie. Approximately 80% of his business is in blueberry production, with the remaining 20% in cherries. This year Peter did not harvest his blueberry crop. Spiraling costs and cheaper imports from Peru and South Africa meant that picking the crop would cost Peter far more money than he would make, even if he could get the pickers (which he couldn’t).
Blueberries bushes need a winter chill to produce a good harvest the following year, and Scottish blueberries used to occupy a niche in the calendar in October, producing high quality berries at a time when they were not cheaply available from other sources. This is no longer the case. New varieties have been developed that don’t require a cold snap in the winter. This means that large-scale blueberry production in warmer geographies is now possible as well as economically viable. Blueberries keep and travel well and the cost of shipping blueberries from South Africa and Peru is now comparable or perhaps even cheaper than transporting the fruit from Perthshire to London by lorry.
I visited Peter’s blueberry fields three times in October. Once to capture the tale for the Waste Stories project. Once to pick as many berries as I could to drop off at Stirling Community Food (and in the process be filmed by BBC’s Landward). And the final time to take my son and mother-in-law, the former desperate to pick blueberries and ‘help Peter not have to throw them away’ and the latter determined to make as many jars of jam as she could from the ‘best blueberries’ she’d ever tasted. I questioned whether I should make the final trip, knowing that the berries our trio would pick would not likely offset the emissions cost of driving all that way. But I decided to go anyway and spared myself the guilt involved in the dilemma by valuing education and experience and stacking that up with avoiding a few more lost blueberries.
The site of the fields of berries under polytunnel skeletons was staggering, and probably best captured by the Landward drone that few overhead to help viewers to grasp the sheer scale of the waste. The photographs and videos I took show bushes dripping with the beautifully coloured fruit, midnight blues mixed with thunderstorm purple and the dusky pink of berries yet to ripen. As I walked down the tunnels and brushed past the bushes the fruit, so ready for picking, fell to the floor or into the basket that Peter had lent to me. Over the course of the three visits my helpers and I probably picked in excess of 45 kg of fruit, though our picking left no visible footprint. In another couple of weeks the fruit will start to turn and the remaining berries will fall, if I could justify another drive I’d pick more and make no more of a dent.
This is indeed a story of waste, and one that yet again shows the dilemmas involved in its creation and the challenge of keeping pace with waste reduction in an ever-changing and challenging world. Life inevitably shifts and turns but I can’t help but see cycles and mirrored pasts.
The lost blueberry crop reminds me of a tale Anna shared from her childhood, of the demise of local apple orchards in Worcestershire as fruit from New Zealand became cheaply and readily available. Anna was young at the time but still remembers how upset her friend’s father was as his apple trees were left to drop their fruit to the ground.
Times are difficult and costs are going up, for many the choice isn’t should I buy often more expensive local produce or cheaper imports, but can I afford to buy blueberries or apples at all.
As grim as the tale of the lost blueberry crop is, we yet again find a story that shows waste is often treasure by another name. The blueberries donated to Stirling Community Food will have been gratefully eaten, turned into smoothies or preserved into jam. Peter raised thousands for charity by opening up his farm to communities and families, who donated to Macmillan Cancer Support in return for ‘filling their boots’ with berries. His story went viral thanks to a social media post from another small local business (Arisaig Shellfish Shack) all of which allowed Waste Stories and Landward to capture a tale not only of waste and loss but also community spirit and the thoughtfulness. I will continue to follow the story of the blueberries, as I receive messages from other charities and social enterprises determined to pick and use the berries before they fall. And I will keep in touch with Peter as he decides what to do with the fields of blueberry bushes that will continue to grow and produce fruit until the land is put to a different use.