The Sharp End: Blackcurrant harvester

On a Perthshire soft-fruit farm, Rhymer Rigby tastes the last of the summer juice.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

To Perthshire to pick blackcurrants for Ribena. Naturally, The Sharp End is trying to trim its carbon footprint (beachsweeping in Rio and toy painting in China are now out), and the train journey proved a surprisingly enjoyable six hours. Scotland's fertile heartland looks much like southern England, but mercifully without the Barratt estates behind every hill. Finally, I arrived at the Bankhead of Kinloch, a lyrically named 800-acre mixed-fruit farm run by the McLaren family. It was the last few days of the blackcurrant harvest, farms in the supposedly sunnier south having already finished.

First, a word from our sponsors. Ribena, incongruously owned by drug giant GSK, is one of those iconic British brands that has a whiff of the 1950s about it. But unlike so many of its nostalgic contemporaries, it has thrived. Indeed, some 750 million bottles of the stuff are drunk every year in the UK - that's 12 for every man, woman and child. Moreover, Ribena uses only British blackcurrants and it buys a remarkable 95% of the UK crop.

George McLaren has been growing blackcurrants for 15 years and has 120 acres of the bushes. These, he said, would yield 400 tonnes of fruit, 330 of them earmarked for his Ribena contract. It would be nice to think that British blackcurrants are picked by hand, especially as those little Ribena berries are so cute in the ads. But such bucolic niceties aren't economically viable these days and the currants are harvested by machine. This is an odd-looking contraption, three metres high and with a front like a snowplough. It cleaves the row of blackcurrant bushes in two and each half passes through a series of rotating wheels with white plastic 'fingers' attached. The currants are tickled off.

The fruit is sucked up by twin fans (which separate out most of the leaf matter), spat out onto a conveyor belt and thence to the harvester trailer. Then the manual work begins. As a picker, I stood on the trailer and, taking turns with two Polish co-workers, directed the moveable end of the conveyor into one of the trailer's seven giant berry-bins, or picked out the bits of twig and leaf that had dodged the fans. I'd even the currants out if they were building up on one side of a bin. Each bin held half a tonne and we were picking about five tonnes an hour.

There was blackcurrant goo everywhere. Spend more than 20 minutes at it and you look as if you've been in a knife-fight in an early Technicolor film. But a full currant-hopper is a magical sight, its berries gleaming like a mountain of monster caviar. Blackcurrants really are black; not dark purple, but like the proverbial ace of spades. Munching happily on the surprisingly tasty raw product, it was all very pleasant in the sunshine - a fresh breeze, birds swooping on the insects dislodged by our activities, the air fragrant with the fruity aroma of the harvest.

Every now and then the harvester would jam. During one mechanical hiatus, I was shown around the farm. There were polytunnels full of strawberries and raspberries, both of which have to be picked by hand. For this task, McLaren explained, the farm called in up to 125 seasonal employees, almost all east European students. They were paid minimum wage plus accommodation in a tidy little trailer park on the farm. I saw the vast refrigerated stores and a lorry coming to take the berries to Somerset to be processed and packed into bottles of Ribena.

After more picking, I was allowed to drive the machine. This was tricky: it's difficult to see where the middle of a row of blackcurrant bushes is when you're 10 feet above them. Go too fast and the currant separators can't keep up, too slow and you waste time. Quickly discovering my limits in the world of soft fruit, I returned to the relative tranquillity of the trailer.

After a tasty farmhouse lunch, my afternoon was brief: a combination of another blockage and a sudden downpour stopped work. Rain means wet leaves, so the fans can't separate fruit from chaff. I can't say I was too upset: McLaren had warned me that it was repetitive work, and so it is. Pick blackcurrants for an hour and you've done it for a season.

On the way home, inbound to King's Cross, I reflected that there's often something fascinating about the backstory behind our household names. But a more pressing realisation intervened - that being allowed to eat as many blackcurrants as you want doesn't mean you should. If you want to ingest a kilo of blackcurrants, better to do it in the form of Ribena.

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