Home-grown strawberries in M&S at Christmas? Unthinkable! Unless you’re billionaire inventor James Dyson – with the help of a computer-controlled weather system, 20 robot fruit pickers, smartphone-powered mould zappers and a flotilla of drones
Standing in a muddy field in rural Lincolnshire, wind whipping my hair on one of the coldest days of the year, thoughts of sunshine, Wimbledon and garden parties couldn’t be further from my mind.
Yet inside a futuristic-looking glass building in a corner of a sprawling farm, summer seems to be in full swing. The air is hot — a balmy 23c — and rays of what look like sunlight glow so brightly from illuminated ceiling beams, I wish I’d brought sunglasses.
It might be the season for turkeys and Brussels sprouts but at this farm everywhere you look is row upon row of strawberry plants — 750,000 of them — laden with plump, scarlet berries, ripening as if it were mid-June, not the depths of December.
These plants — and the 36,000-acre farmland on which they’re growing — belong to James Dyson, inventor, business magnate and, with £23 billion to his name, the fifth-richest man in the country.
Dyson, 76, has owned this land for more than a decade but, in what started as ‘very much an experiment’, is achieving something that’s never been done before: homegrown Christmas strawberries.
It might be the season for turkeys and Brussels sprouts but at this farm everywhere you look is row upon row of strawberry plants
These plants — and the 36,000-acre farmland — belong to James Dyson
While it’s long been possible to buy fruit out of season, Dyson’s berries, available in selected M&S stores over the festive period, are a world-first
While it’s long been possible to buy fruit out of season, Dyson’s berries, available in selected M&S stores over the festive period, are a world-first: all-British and — he claims — just as sweet, succulent and flavoursome as if they’d been plucked on a summer’s day.
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Farming is a new(-ish) string to his bow: first bagless vacuum cleaners, bladeless fans, £500 hairdryers and now… strawberries? ‘I like strawberries,’ he says.
‘We import so many, but frankly they’re not very good; we can grow much better ones here. And then there are no air miles as we don’t have to fly them in.’
Agriculture is a slightly unexpected departure for him, but he sees it as an ‘extension’ of the projects championed to date by Dyson Limited, the multi-billion-pound technology company he founded in 1991.
‘It is all about machinery, mechanics and science, and experimenting and improving things, so it is sort of another engineering project — and it fits well with everything else we do,’ says fruit farming’s answer to Willy Wonka.
Certainly, this is the most hi-tech farm I’ve ever seen.
Drones, robots, self-steering tractors and a computer-controlled weather system — there’s no room for human error, especially when it comes to Dyson’s prized strawberries.
Drones, robots, self-steering tractors and a computer-controlled weather system
Inside the vast greenhouse, recently expanded to cover 26 acres, 20 robotic pickers trundle up and down rows of plants, automatically selecting the juiciest berries
Inside the vast greenhouse, recently expanded to cover 26 acres, 20 robotic pickers trundle up and down rows of plants, automatically selecting the juiciest berries — sensors detect when they’re the right size, shape, colour and texture — to put in punnets.
Rather than growing up from the ground, seeds are planted in more easily manageable pots at head-height, fixed to large hangers.
The ceiling is fitted with super-charged LED bulbs that glow pinky-orange on wintry days to make up for the lack of daylight.
Sliding doors separate the building into four ‘seasons’, each subtly distinct in terms of heat, light and humidity, to mimic 12 months of nature under one roof and ensure a steady supply of fruit.
There are two UV light machines, powered by smartphones, programmed to patrol the glasshouse at night, zapping mould and mildew from the leaves without the need for chemicals.
And the eight-armed ‘bug distributor’, a whirring robot octopus that releases friendly insects onto leaves to kill fruit-eating aphids, could have come straight from a sci-fi film set.
The focus is as much on the process as the product.
While I tour his crop in mud-spattered boots, Dyson Zooms me — from his decidedly plusher, warmer-looking office in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, where the company — which moved operations to Singapore in 2019 — still has its HQ.
He insists that he’s not averse to getting his hands dirty himself (not today, though).
‘I grew up in Norfolk —that’s how I got interested in farming. I worked on farms when I was a child, and lots of my friends are farmers,’ he says.
‘I topped and tailed Brussels sprouts, I picked blackberries, and possibly the strangest job I had was picking parsley and driving it to the Campbell’s Soup factory in King’s Lynn.
‘You had to get it there in an hour before it wilted.’
Here, most of the hard graft — and the enviable job of chief strawberry-taster — is done by glasshouse manager Angel Angelov, who’s been working with strawberries for 20 years.
He leads a team of up to 70 people carefully tending the plants (which will soon almost double in number to 1.25 million), and is in charge not only of daily tastings but also the computer system that controls the growing conditions.
There areUV light machines, powered by smartphones, programmed to patrol the glasshouse
The ceiling is fitted with super-charged LED bulbs that glow pinky-orange on wintry days
His ‘office’ is so vast — almost a kilometre from one side of the giant greenhouse to the other — that he uses an electric scooter to get around.
Angel eats strawberries for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and says he can ‘never have too many’.
The perfect fruit, he tells me, not only tastes the part but looks it, too. ‘You want it to be big, red and juicy, because customers are led by their eyes. The texture has to be right — soft but not squishy — and the flavour must be sweet with just the right amount of tartness.
‘You want to look at the berry and say, ‘Wow,’ and then once you bite into it, say, ‘Wow’ again.’
The UK strawberry season is short, from June to August; the rest of the time 94 per cent of berries are imported, mostly from Spain, Greece and North Africa.
Other attempts to grow them year-round have been far less natural than the Dyson method and have included GM modification, hydroponics (using water instead of soil) and vertical farming, where plants are stacked in tower-like structures.
That’s not the case here though, where the 1,452 rows of plants — around 62.5 million berries — are an established variety called Malling Centenary, a sweet, early-season berry originally from Kent, which Angel says have produced a particularly delicious, vibrant crop.
Each berry is astonishing in size; the size of a plum or small apple, but I can confirm that flavour is not compromised.
The taste is truly remarkable: fresh, luscious flesh with a nectar-like sweetness
Each berry is astonishing in size; the size of a plum or small apple, but I can confirm that flavour is not compromised
The taste is truly remarkable: fresh, luscious flesh with a nectar-like sweetness that makes me want to guzzle the entire punnet I’m meant to be filling. An operation like this is costly (though a mere drop in the ocean for its billionaire backer) and, with the machines and systems required to keep it all running, sounds like an environmental nightmare.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
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Dyson is proud of the fact that his farm is not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative — meaning rather than pumping greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, it actually removes more harmful substances than it emits.
Certain types of farming are notoriously bad for the planet and he’s on a mission to change this, using strawberries as an example of a wholly circular, self-sufficient system.
At the heart of it is a huge — and distinctly whiffy — anaerobic digester that operates like a miniature power plant for the farm.
‘We rot down crops to create gas, which then drives a generator and creates electricity,’ Dyson explains. ‘We put this into the National Grid — where it powers 10,000 homes — and use it in the greenhouse.
‘But while 60 per cent of what the generator creates is electricity, 40 per cent is heat.
‘So we use this heat to dry grain [the farm produces many other crops including wheat, peas and potatoes], and also to heat the greenhouse where we grow the strawberries.’
That means the heat and electricity needed for berry production is almost entirely free.
And nothing at Dyson Farming is squandered.
Dyson is proud of the fact that his farm is not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative
Berry production started here in 2020, with the first crop available in spring 2021, but this is the first time they’ve been sold at Christmas
The liquid waste from the digester goes back onto the land as fertiliser. Rain falling on the roof of the glasshouse is collected in a lagoon and used to water the plants. The only thing pumped in artificially is carbon dioxide, fed through pipes to stimulate photosynthesis, sweeten the berries and increase the size of the leaves.
Once picked and packed, the strawberries are quality-checked and transported to a nearby distribution centre, which can get them to customers as far afield as Glasgow and Cornwall within 24 hours. They sell for £2.90 a punnet at selected M&S stores and farm shops.
‘It’s important to us that the strawberries we picked yesterday are on the shelves today,’ explains the farm’s managing director, Daniel Cross. ‘This maximises flavour, freshness and quality.’
Berry production started here in 2020, with the first crop available in spring 2021, but this is the first time they’ve been sold at Christmas.
Eventually, the aim is to produce them for much of the year, with the notable exception of summer, when Dyson Farming leaves the traditionalists to do their thing.
‘The point is to produce the berries outside the natural season, so we tend to focus on other projects then,’ says Daniel.
Humans work here, too: up to 50 pickers supplement the robots in spring and half that number work five or six hours a day in December. At its peak as many as 110 tons —or 500,000 punnets — of strawberries are harvested a week.
Like all good inventors, James Dyson is always looking to the next breakthrough. He’s tight-lipped about a sealed-off research area on the farm, devoted to ‘secret’ projects — among them, growing crops for use in Dyson products.
‘I can’t tell you what they are or what they will be, but there will be a day when we do that,’ he says, mysteriously.
Humans work here, too: up to 50 pickers supplement the robots in spring and half that number work five or six hours a day in December
Engineers, scientists and inventors are working hand-in-hand with farmers, growers and entrepreneurs — a fusion of ‘agri-tech’ that Dyson says is ‘really exciting’
A plant-powered vacuum cleaner, perhaps?
Engineers, scientists and inventors are working hand-in-hand with farmers, growers and entrepreneurs — a fusion of ‘agri-tech’ that Dyson says is ‘really exciting’.
His grand vision is for Britain to become wholly self-sufficient in food. ‘We have some of the best farmland in the world.
‘We can grow wheat, barley, oilseed rape, potatoes and plenty of other things,’ he says.
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‘By recreating the tropical conditions you need to grow fruit and veg you can’t normally grow here, we really would have all the things we need.’
A vocal Brexiteer, he laments the lack of decent subsidies for UK farmers, as well as supermarkets’ reliance on cheap, foreign-grown produce.
‘We need a government that really believes in growing things here, rather than importing food — and supermarkets who buy British rather than just trying to cut their costs.
‘There are 250,000 farmers in England and four [main] supermarkets. So they have a lot of people to play off against each other.
‘If farmers could sell more directly to customers, as we do in my main business, they would be much better off.’
Easy for this uber-rich landowner to say, perhaps, but there’s a sense that Dyson really cares about the plight of farmers, especially so now that he has — in a sense — joined their ranks.
And, deep down, this is a man who really, really loves his strawberries. ‘I make a real pig of myself when I go to the farm,’ he says. ‘They are very tasty indeed.’
Having tried them for myself, I can’t help but agree: the ultimate, unexpected ingredient for a berry merry Christmas.
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