Visitors to MWW Farms in Worcestershire – one of the UK’s largest fresh produce specialists and growers – are likely to be greeted by a sprightly cocker spaniel, eagerly presenting his food bowl for hoped-for treats.
But none of your usual dog favourites for Buddy – oh no – give him a green bean, a sugar snap or a Tenderstem® broccoli stem and he is your pal forever. Holly, his best friend, also a sprocker spaniel is also quite partial.
What they say about pets mirroring their owners must be true, because Charlie Cleaver is agricultural development manager at MWW and to say she has a love for all things green would be understating what is a lifelong passion for growing fresh, sustainable food.
Established in 1963, the family-owned business began as import specialists and now sources over 100 products from more than 50 countries, across fruit, vegetables, salads and ripened products including mangoes, avocados and papaya. It has associate produce companies in the UK, Spain, Holland and Germany and its own dedicated distribution fleet.
But it is MWW Farm’s work, offering local produce in season, across 1000 hectares, which is Charlie’s remit and also one of the company’s strongest growth areas.
“We grow a wide variety of vegetables, including spring onions, runner beans, pak choi, courgettes and purple sprouting broccoli, but our biggest growth areas are green beans, sugar snap peas and Tenderstem® broccoli,” says Cleaver.
“Tenderstem® broccoli has seen year on year growth of some 20-30% for us as UK consumers continue their shift to vegetarian and vegan foods. The brand’s reputation for convenience, ease of preparation and great taste also continues to grow, across retail and food service and we’re almost doubling our Tenderstem® crop to some 350 hectares next year to cater for increased demand.”
A food science graduate of Reading University with a background in agriculture, Cleaver has worked with MWW for 10 years. Sustainability, she says, is at the heart of every plan, policy and process they introduce.
“If you take Tenderstem® broccoli as an example, one plant can be picked up to nine times, compared to a regular broccoli plant. It’s also perfect for crop rotation, because left-over plant can be ploughed back into the ground to deliver vital nitrates, which are hugely beneficial for other crops in our rotation.”
“The UK season lasts from June to November, generally, but we have been able to achieve decent harvests in December and once even on Christmas Eve! We’re also able to maintain supply to our retail and food service customers year-round through our own farms in Spain and Kenya.”
Tenderstem® broccoli is only flown into the UK on commercial flights, other than in unique circumstances. Sakata Seeds, the Japanese vegetable seed specialists who created Tenderstem® have a thriving UK base which ensures that British growers are kept supplied.
“Our Brassica specialists are dedicated to creating the perfect conditions to produce the perfect seeds and our British growers are as committed as we are to producing the highest quality products. Sustainable production is key to that, with a focus on crop rotation, creative use of by-products and seasonal longevity,” says Sakata UK managing director Stuart Cox.
“We’re also working in close collaboration with our supply chain to further reduce the use of plastic in our packaging. The current packaging protects the florets and keeps the product fresher for longer, but we’re busy looking for alternatives which will offer the same benefits.”
Growers are well aware of the challenges of the labour market for picking fresh produce – exacerbated by the Covid crisis as well as the ongoing issue of Brexit – and for Tenderstem® broccoli with up to nine pickings per crop, the challenge is multiplied. For MWW Farms, the solution is increased automation where viable, to complement the tender loving care which is essential to getting the best hand-picked results.
“We’ve introduced some automation into the planting process, with an extremely effective robotic planter, but hand-picking is a vital part of the Tenderstem® harvest, in order to get the full benefit of every shoot. The whole point of Tenderstem® broccoli is that it is edible and delicious from stem to tip, so we must ensure we pick every stem as carefully as possible,” continues Cleaver.
“Irrigation is also a vital part of the process – Worcestershire soil is very light and sandy and dries out quickly, so we have to ensure that every plant gets at least 4 millimetres of water a day. We fertilise as we plant and top-dress throughout the growing period, limiting the use of pesticides as much as possible, in order to manage key pests such as pollen beetle and caterpillars.”
Cleaver’s day will normally start at 5.30am, to give her the best time in the morning to check every crop at each stage of its growth, manage any issues and supervise the harvests. Afternoons are about liaising with customers – MWW supplies major multiples, discounters, independents, catering and food service across the UK – as well as administration and communication: Cleaver produces a regular newsletter for the MWW community.
Working in close collaboration with MWW’s head of growing Simon Barnett, she also focuses on new product development and optimising every aspect of their production process.
“We’re looking at more ways to fully utilise every part of the produce we grow,” says Cleaver. “Using the parts which don’t end up on the retailers’ shelves or on our plates, to plough back into the land and provide vital nutrients for other crops is an important part of that, but we’re also scoping out collaborations with creative food manufacturers and brands.
“Tenderstem® broccoli will be the perfect product for those collaborations, particularly for delicious soups and sauces, and we see great opportunities for further growth in that sector. One thing I’ve learned, there is no such thing as waste in fresh produce – it’s simply how creatively you use it.”
To find out more about Tenderstem® head here.