We arrive at Mains of Errol Farm just outside Perth on a sunny Sunday morning. The sky is blue, the countryside is lush and green, and the thick smell of strawberries, clover and buttercups hangs like a sweet fragrance in the air.
It may be the traditional day of rest but on a seasonal berry farm, picking waits for no-one and between pack house and fields there is the gentle hum of busy people going about their business.
Mains of Errol stretches nearly 370 acres across the Carse of Gowrie, and has been in the Glen family for three generations; but it wasn’t until David Arnot took over from his step-dad Alan in 1999, that it moved into strawberries.
Quickly establishing themselves as one of the area’s most prominent producers, Mains of Errol is an integral part of the Angus Soft Fruit Growers co-operative who supply Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Lidl, Aldi, the Co-op and Iceland. As well as picking and packing their own fruits, they also pack for three other growers.
W Glen & Son and Smartpack are now run by the late David Arnot’s wife Karen, son Jamie, and a fulltime staff of six headed by Manager, Gatis. Over the summer months their workforce swells to around two hundred seasonal pickers who travel from across Europe to set up temporary home in the berry fields of Perthshire.
K: “We’re really fortunate at The Mains; Gatis and his team run a slick operation. My time is mostly spent in the office - paperwork is never ending. There are multiple audits a year now so making sure that side of the business is on track is really vital. Without a good team who know what they’re doing, we’d be lost.
The vast majority of our pickers come through our own website and over 30% are returning workers every year. It means we don’t have agency fees and we know that the people who are coming are reliable and loyal. It makes a big difference.”
Whatever the alchemy involved, the strawberries grown down in the Carse of Gowrie at Mains of Errol Farm are the sweetest, juiciest examples of what makes for a perfect berry.
The pickers stay in the static caravan park which enjoys unrivalled views across the Carse of Gowrie valley and comes complete with recreational barn, pool table, gym and space for dancing. There’s a volleyball tournament going on at the moment, with a beach like court built by the side of the homes.
The season starts in early May and nowadays, thanks to poly- tunnels and smarter farming, runs until mid-October. The operation though, is year round, with a barley and wheat harvest in September and that core staff of six led by Gatis and Alex the field manager, tiding, mending, planting and trimming back throughout the winter months and into spring. They also rent land for pea and potato crops to local farmers.
The strawberries at Mains of Errol are grown in polytunnels on tabletops, which, as anyone who spent a day at the berries can imagine, makes the picking far easier and much quicker! Pickers work from as early as four in the morning - picking the fruit during the cooler hours prevents any damage to the berries. When we arrive they’re almost half- way through their working day and many of the tunnels have been picked clean, expert hands quickly selecting the best of the crop for that day’s orders.
Packed into trays and set into cool, covered ‘trains’ ready to be transported to the packhouse just a few hundred meters away, the organised scene is a far cry from the chaos of the berry dreels I remember from the late seventies and early eighties. Although when I bite into one of the soft, warm strawberries I’ve pinched from the end of a tunnel, the juice runs down my chin and stains my t-shirt just like it always did. I’m not sure if it’s the berry or the nostalgia that fills me with joy but either way, these are amongst the best I’ve ever tasted.
K: “It’s completely different! My granny and grandad had a raspberry farm near Blairgowrie when I was growing up and we’d all be sent to help pick. Along with the bus-loads of people who’d arrive every day, my sisters, cousins and I would be covered in scratches for the whole summer. Everything now is so closely monitored. Nothing is allowed in the tunnels in case a water bottle top or mobile phone ends up in a punnet. It has happened – not from here though!
When Dave and I first started we had this guy who came every year - we nicknamed him Roman Pantman - he’d strip down to a pair of trunks and pick like a machine. Every day, for the whole season – he was incredible. The risk assessment doesn’t really allow for that anymore! Everyone works on a six day rota, is paid minimum wage with bonuses and will either pick early morning or do a packhouse shift.”
The packhouse is just a short walk from the tunnels and is a mesmerising operation, producing between 70,000 and 100,000 punnets of Grade 1 berries each and every day.
“The three growers we pack for – Gus Porter, Peter Arbuckle and Doulas Neill – usually deliver a couple of times a day in these big chilled trailers, we ensure each individual punnet is labelled with full provenance including the specific name of the farmer who grew them.”
Karen is the only female farmer in the co-operative at the moment, and although not the path she set out to follow, she’s now a mine of information on legislation, HR, field yield and the subtle differences in flavours and colour that come with each variety.
“I never thought I’d marry a farmer let alone end up being one! Still, I feel very fortunate to be here, living in such a beautiful place, surrounded by amazing people who help me make all of this happen. I know our product is really good and I know that doesn’t happen by accident. Everything from choosing the right field, to buying in enough bees go into creating our perfect Perthshire berry.”
Buy Mains Of Errol Berries
Visit The Fruit Shack at Mains of Errol farm, open seven days a week until 7pm. This wee shed operates on an honesty box system so do take change. You can also pop into Provender Brown on George Street who stock Grade 1 Mains of Errol berries all summer long!
About The Berries
It’s not often you get to boast that your product is world-class - and for the statement to be true - but Perthshire Berries are arguably right up there as the foodie equivalent of a seven-star hotel. Karen is firm in her belief that it is our strange micro-climate that creates the perfect growing environment – not too hot, not too cold and with the just right balance of daylight hours, sun and rain. Whatever the alchemy involved, the strawberries grown down in the Carse of Gowrie at mains of Errol Farm are the sweetest, juiciest examples of what makes for a perfect berry.
Mains of Errol grows Sonata and Elsanta as their main crops, but this year for the first time, they’re trialling Malling Centenary, Ava Joy and Ava Surprise which you can buy now from the Fruit Shack, their honesty box shed on the farm.
These little balls of chocolatey peanut butter goodness are full of energy and the perfect pick-me-up snack.
February 9th Saturday 2019
This delicious root vegetable soup with honey and thyme is a warm and hearty comfort food for the colder nights bursting full of flavour and vitamins.
January 26th Saturday 2019
Okay, so while the festive period is well and truly behind us, winter isn’t quite done with us yet: we've got a few months more left of frosty morning
January 25th Friday 2019