On a Thirsk farm, Catherine Scott discovers the art of the perfect punnet of strawberries.

Spilmans strawberriesRichard Spilman started growing strawberries some 45 years ago on an acre of land at Sessay, near Thirsk. Now the family business produces 120,000 punnets of strawberries and other soft fruit on 15 acres of land in North Yorkshire.

But strawberries are notoriously difficult to grow as they are prone to disease and infestation.

“I defy anyone to grow organic strawberries commercially,” says Richard’s son Tom who has returned to the family business after a career in the Army.”

“We grow all our strawberries in the open are, we don’t use polytunnels or anything like that. But you have to be so vigilant as strawberries are really difficult to grow.”

Last year was an early bumper crop for Spilmans, with strawberry picking starting as early as June 3.

But 2015 is a different story. “The strawberry crop is looking good but it is much later this year,” says Tom who also helps run the farm’s asparagus business.

“We only started to pick last week, which is more than two weeks later than last year. Strawberries like the sunshine and warmth to ripen and we just have had enough yet so the crop is late. Which means we are getting a lot of phone calls from people wanting to know when our strawberries will be ready.”

Spilmans doesn’t supply any supermarkets. Instead it relies on farm shops and greengrocers across North Yorkshire as well as selling to wholesale.

During the summer the family open a farm shop, which also sells Spilmans’ other produce, including spring lamb which can now also be bought online for the first time, as Tom’s brother Joss explains. “Tom and dad run the soft fruit side of the business while I look after the arable side, the sheep and the cattle. We are now selling our lamb on line at pasturelanemeat.co.uk,” says Joss who has also returned to the family farm in Helperby since leaving the Army.

Meanwhile brother Tom is busy tending his strawberries, making sure they don’t succumb to mildew, blossom weevil and any other diseases and pests which can threaten a crop.

He also has to keep a close eye on the weather. Too wet and the crops could rot, too dry and he needs to consider irrigating the strawberries.

“I am sure people don’t realise quite how difficult strawberries are to grow when they sit down to their bowl of strawberries and cream,” adds Tom.

A number of varieties of strawberries are grown at the family’s business, at Church Lane Farm in Sessay.

Over the years, new varieties of strawberries have been developed, and Spilmans grows a selection in order to extend the season and to produce quality fruit throughout June and July. Rosie, Christine, Korona, Symphony and Florence are among the strawberry varieties and the family are always looking out for new ones that will suit their land and system.

During the season Spilmans employs 45 migrant workers from the Czech Republic and Poland to pick the fruit as well as operating a busy Pick Your Own Business.

“The same pickers come every year and we wouldn’t be able to manage without them,” says Tom. “Last year because it was such a big crop we were a bit shorthanded. We tried to recruit English people but they just weren’t prepared to do the hard manual work.”

For more information visit www.spilmanfarming.co.uk

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