One of the county's biggest strawberry producers is cashing in on a £5million investment to deliver top Kent fruit to leading supermarkets.
It is now reaping the benefits of a £5m investment on 30 acres of fully retractable greenhouses, developed by Canadian firm Cravo, to protect its crops.
Maidstone-based planning firm DHA secured planning permission for the retractable greenhouses, as well as storage buildings, water storage tanks, drainage system and a 24,980m3 reservoir on land at Ulcombe, near Maidstone.
The site, on the Greensand Ridge, was deemed by the council to be a landscape of local value but not designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Despite the local parish council opposing the scheme on the grounds of landscape impact and the accumulative effect of the new Cravo greenhouses and other nearby polytunnels on the Greensand Ridge, the application secured the officer’s recommendation for approval and Maidstone Borough Council granted permission.
The Cravo system is used extensively around the world in warm and hot climates as the retractable roofs allow fruit and vegetables to be produced during times of the year when it is difficult to grow. After a small-scale trial, Charlton Farms saw the opportunity to use the system to help extend their growing season and at the same time produce greater volumes of high-quality berries.
Sean Charlton, managing director at Charlton Farms, said: “The retractable roofs and sides, all fully automated, combine with the weather station and mean we can mitigate the risk of late frosts and rain, protecting our crop and harvesting our table-top grown strawberries between May and November.
“The system also allows us to very accurately measure humidity, evaporation and all other aspects of the strawberries’ physiology, which meant we could improve our already very high levels of consistent high-quality fruit.”
Work began on the site in January 2018 with the first strawberries planted this February and harvested from May.
Mr Charlton added: “What the Cravo system enables us to do is harvest early from our customers’ perspective, which include Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, the Co-op and Iceland, and means we can deliver late season British fruit to their stores.
“Building the Cravo greenhouses ourselves, and working very closely with the team in Canada, means we now have a Rolls Royce system that will improve our productivity, competitiveness and also in a small way reduce the UK’s dependence on overseas produced strawberries.”
Charlton Farms grows strawberries under protection on 230 acres of its 1,100 acres within five miles of its head office at Langley near Maidstone.
It employs 1,400 people during the summer and 650 in the winter.