27 September 1996

STRAWBERRY DREAMER AWAKE TO THE MARKET

"I DREAM of strawberries" says Michael Balle, and it is little wonder for he grows 70,000 plants and is one of the few Danish growers to catch the more lucrative early and late markets.

Michael, who is married with a five-year-old son, has been growing strawberries for 10 years near Odense, on the island of Fyn, but has been extending the season for the past four years. "There are around 1000ha of strawberries grown in Denmark, all coming ripe in July. When we send the ones we start picking tomorrow to the market in Copenhagen they will fetch 32DKK/kg (£1.86/lb) – double the price we get in July," explained Michael, speaking in the third week of August.

His 20 pickers, mainly Asians who live in Denmark plus a sprinkling of Europeans, are paid a premium rate to pick and grade the fruits carefully. Each row will be picked every two or three days and over the year he harvests about 70t of fruit.

He also grows 200,000 asparagus plants which are sold to commercial and private growers, and this year he grew 5t of peas for the fresh market which sold for 16DKK/kg (93p/lb). For most of the year he works the enterprise on his own.

The strawberries are bought in as plantlets from Holland. "I dont think we could produce plants like this in Denmark; the frosts are too early and there isnt enough light," he explained. "We plant them out from May to end of July and pick eight weeks after planting. The majority of plants are grown for one year only, but some will go into the glasshouses for an early crop next year."

Michael has experimented with different growing methods. The strawberries are all grown in peat bags be they outdoors, under glass or in polytunnels, or even raised on a scaffold and covered with polycloches. Frosts, cold winds and warm nights are his enemies.

His first crop is picked around May 13 – "Small fruit but the price we get is a bit better. In the spring the Spanish are our biggest competitors but we joke we can play golf with their strawberries as they are so hard," says Michael, who thinks he is probably the only Danish strawberry grower using glasshouses now, and his were originally for tomatoes. "Our problem is overwintering here – last winter was very bad."

In one glasshouse this spring just about everything went wrong and pollination was poor. But generally the early crops are good and he is expecting a good September harvest from the plants under glass.

Polytunnels are his latest investment and these are shielded by a straw bale windbreak against the strong winds that are a problem in this flat area. "This is our first season with the tunnels and we have two, each 1100sq m. We imported them ourselves from Holland and they cost 50DKK/sq m. They are producing 1.5kg/sq m and we should get two crops a year," says Michael.

He is not certain that the fruit tastes so good when grown in the polytunnel and is fighting softness as the night temperatures can be too high but he is generally optimistic about using the tunnels.

He grows two varieties, Elsanta, which he grows outdoors and inside, and Evita, an English variety. "In Holland, which with Belgium competes against us for the main crop, they pick Elsanta half-ripe and they taste of nothing. We pick them later and they taste good," says Michael, adding that size and quality are two different things.

"The fruit should shine and be mail-box red. We need a lot of sun to produce good strawberries but we dont want heat. This summer has been good for them."

But no matter how perfect the weather, it is unlikely he will ever again sell his strawberries for the price he got two years ago. "I sold 4kg at 5245DKK/kg. They were used in a supermarket advert," says the ever-smiling Michael who was paid a jammy £2440 for 4kg (9lbs) of fruit. A dream crop indeed!

Michael has invested in two polytunnels this year and is picking about 1.5kg of fruit for every metre of plants. Controlling night temperatures is the biggest problem as too much heat softens the fruit.

The late crop is a good earner.

The variety Elsanta does well indoors and out. Michael believes he is the only Danish grower using glasshouses now. His used to house tomatoes.