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A pioneering approach to growing strawberries out of season has been shortlisted for an award with the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

Melissa Balk, an associate based at our Bedford office, led the planning application for the family-run farm in Oxfordshire which is using the very latest technology and innovative growing techniques to enable it to produce strawberries for nine months of the year.

Middle Farm, in Mixbury, has diversified to launch Featherbed Fruits and has installed a state-of-the-art two-acre greenhouse which houses almost 80,000 strawberry plants. The farm has been run by the Rymer family for almost 100 years and farms a range of crops across just over 800 acres of land and also runs five B&B units, ranging from shepherd’s huts to luxury glamping tents, and a 7,000 sq ft office complex.

When looking for an alternative enterprise to continue to sustain the business, considering the current challenges in the industry, and generate enough income for the family, third-generation farmer Harry Rymer investigated the possibility of growing soft fruits.

We were instructed to prepare and submit a planning application for two acres of polytunnels, and despite the plans being recommended for refusal by council officers, our planning team demonstrated the positive impacts the scheme would have to achieve unanimous approval; including the contribution towards a stable local food economy which is less reliant on global imports, the creation of 15 jobs and the impact on education, with school visits planned to educate children about locally sourced food in the future.

The first strawberry plants, made up of both Everbearing June-bearing crops, were planted in February 2022 in a hydroponic, soil-free system consisting of coconut husk and irrigated rainfall collected from the roof. The temperature and humidity are monitored using a climate controller to ensure the optimum growing condition for the strawberry plants all year round. The double layer of poly for added insulation is also one of very few in the country and will help the farm reduce energy use.

The farm has now welcomed its very first strawberries and is working with a company which caters for large-scale sporting events, with the fruit set to be used at this year’s Queen’s Club Tennis Championship.

Melissa said: “Although new approaches in farming can pose challenges in the planning process, this can be because of the perceived impact that projects will have on landscapes. We worked to ensure we submitted a robust application, making it clear that the polytunnels were policy compliant and highlighting the numerous benefits. The technology has the potential to be rolled out in farms across the UK and would significantly reduce the amount of food imported from abroad, and we expect to see an increase in similar applications coming forward in the future.”

Harry said: “When looking into diversification methods I wanted something which utilised new technologies to push boundaries and demonstrate that soft fruits can be grown almost all year round, with the greenhouse only being quiet between December and February. It’s a positive way to generate income and means that we can contribute to the country being less reliant on imports, something that will only become increasingly important in the future.

“Growing in coconut husks is an innovate technique which gives a complete blank slate, so we don’t have to investigate what is already in the soil and we’re less reliant on pesticides. After investing in the polytunnels and equipment, we also wanted something which could generate a good income in our first year, so we’re very happy to see our very first strawberries ripen. Utilising new technologies is certainly the future of farming and something which more people in the industry need to do.

“It helps to have expert advice when it comes to planning to ensure that projects are achievable and to also highlight the benefits of schemes which are relatively unknown. We now look forward to continuing to grow the fruit throughout the future months.”

The forward-thinking project has also been shortlisted for an award in the South East Royal Town Planning Institute’s Excellence in Planning Awards, in the Planning for a Successful Economy category.

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