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Scotland's Larder: Jennifer Marshall of Peter Marshall Farms

We head to Alyth in Perthshire to talk to Jennifer Marshall about the trials of soft fruit growing and to find out whether or not it's true, that life is just a bowl of cherries.

Published: September 15, 2021

Jennifer Marshall married into large scale fruit farming near Alyth but she hasn't had time to sit back and enjoy the Perthshire scenery.

She has her hands full with children, Meryl and Munro, (20 months, 9 months) and is hands on running a major fruit growing business along with her husband Rowan.

Jennifer Marshall
Rowan with children, Munro and Meryl and wife Jennifer and Toto the dog. Photo Lisa Ferguson

Jennifer grew up on Little Raith farm near Auchtertool, she said, "my dad and mum and two older brothers still farm there, they have 200 milking cows, 1000 sheep and 700 acres of arable land, so they are never idle."

High flyer

As a youngster she had big ambitions and wanted to be a high flyer, so studied English Literature at St Andrews University, but found St Andrews to be highly pressured and academic; "it was ruthless and I hated it."

As a student, she travelled to India and it opened her eyes to how fortunate she was, after completing her degree she studied MSc Publishing and Business at Napier University.

Next she worked for Canongate Books in publicity and marketing, she explains, "I spent a lot of time in London and travelled a lot with authors."

Scottish fruit harvest. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Then she moved into recruitment which; "taught me a great deal about running people focused businesses, learning from companies about the importance of developing a positive working environment."

She said, "I think I have brought a lot of that into working here. It also taught me to invest in people because they are your major asset.

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"I'm quite glad I had all those other experiences because it makes my work here a lot better, I don't look at it like a farm, it is a business that has to keep evolving and modernising."

Love grows

She first met her future husband when she was 25, but she wasn't looking for a relationship and, "he would never text me back."

Fast forward five years and they were again set up by some of their friends, she said, "this time I left thinking I'm going to marry that man, so I took the bull by the horns."

Things progressed quickly; she chortles, "I was 30 when I got engaged, married the following year, child one when I was 32 and second child when I was 33, so I'm having a ten year gap and doing bugger all."

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The next generation Munro and Meryl Marshall. Photo: LIsa Ferguson

That hasn't proved to be the case, as she was back working within a fortnight, having given birth.

Running the farm is a real partnership, she explains, "my husband does all the logistics and growing and I do all the people side and accounts but it's always a team decision."

Berry fields

She can usually be found in the fruit fields with her children managing squads, supervisors and inspecting quality but she feels being hands on is important; "to show there is no hierarchy and we are all in it together."

Jennifer said "my children are growing up in a berry dreel but I think it is a good life."

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She has a lot of empathy for her pickers; "they are just trying to earn money. It is a no brainer, in their home countries the min wage is around 45p per hour and here it is £8.92."

The farm often has workers that come back; "because we look after them. I'm not saying we are perfect but we had an ethical audit this year which was really good."

Picking at Peter Marshall Fruit farms. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Global workforce

Jennifer is especially proud to be the first fruit farm in Perth and Kinross to get all their staff vaccinated against Covid, and feels speaking to them individually about any concerns, won them over.

They employ a lot of Romani people from Bulgaria, who are seen as outcasts; "they have very little, but they come over and can make huge amounts of money to go home and build a house.

"In the first year they buy a plot, the next year they start to build and the following year they put in electricity. It is so lovely to see, I can remember them coming with very little on their backs."

They also employ pickers from Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Czech, Ukraine and the season now runs from May until the end of October.

Blueberry harvest. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Her father in law, has farmed raspberries for over fifty years so has seen many changes.

Jennifer and Rowan would love to recruit locals but said, "society has moved on from manual labour, locals leave after two days."

Cherry

The farm business encompasses four sites including Muirton Home Farm, and they grow multiple crops to be as diverse as possible; barley, wheat, oats, oil seed rape, Rooster and Osprey potatoes for Albert Bartlett.

The reason is, she explains "it is about not having all your eggs in one basket."

They sell 220 tonnes of blackcurrants annually to Ribena as well as redcurrants, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and the newest crop, cherries.

Harvest. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

They are part of Angus Growers group but they also sell direct from their farm shop which is open year round, she said, "What we love about it is that it does what it says on the tin, we have an honesty box in the winter and it is manned when we have fruit. It is not fancy, and we only sell local stuff."

They sell their cherries to other farm shops, and to Asda with Scotty brand, but she is on a personal mission to promote the best of Scotland's fruit worldwide, so they currently export cherries to Qatar and Japan.

Marshall Fruit Farms
Marshall Fruit Farms 'Does what it says on the tin' farm shop

Growing cherries began nine years ago, as a trial, " If I could shout about anything it would be them because they are moreish and we are only one of four growers in Scotland.

"There is a big appetite for them locally and we are really proud. It has been quite a hard journey, it is all about pruning in the winter and looking after the tree to make sure it gets enough light."

They are currently applying for a grant for a cherry grading machine. It costs "a huge amount of money.

"It washes and grades them in terms of colour and defects. There are only a small number of Scottish cherry farmers so we have to make sure the quality is there."

Their pickers enjoy picking them, because they can pick directly into a bucket which means;" they can go faster and they all come out of the tunnel with berry juice on their faces, they love them."

Marshall Fruit Farms
Scottish cherries sourced from the grower Peter Marshall Co, Alyth, Perthshire., exclusive to Asda for Scotty Brand,
The farm is run Jennifer Marshall and her husband Rowan who are fourth generation farmers

Tunnel vision

The longer hours of natural blue sunlight in Perthshire make it the ideal location for fruit growing.

All the fruit is grown in polytunnels, with plastic over them in the spring and then in the winter they are uncovered. Strawberries are grown on table tops for ease of picking.

This year sees them trying out a blueberry air harvester from Serbia as the price they get for their crop has halved in seven years.

blueberries
Blueberries. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

"No one knows what the future of fruit growing in Scotland is, but if the wages continue to rise and the fruit price doesn't we have to make things work because the customer still wants cheap fruit, so we are constantly trying to innovate.

"I feel quite helpless, all we can do is to continue to grow the tastiest fruit, which is picked the best way in a good environment by people who like their job."

History

The couple feel the weight of previous generations, "it is a big responsibility. We are really proud of the platform they have built us and we have to make sure we continue to do our best."

Looking after the environment is vitally important, she said, "we are caretakers of the land, I want my children to look at what mum and dad have done and be proud."

In the past they used to travel out to countries to recruit their own pickers, she said, "it was a real eye opener. Society is very different in these countries."

Raspberries. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Visa

However following Brexit; "the only way we can get someone who has never been to the UK to work, is through one of five privately owned recruitment companies, that have been given a license and they charge £250 per worker.

"Over and above that, the little person who has no money now has to pay £400 for a visa so it is horrible. It takes eight weeks to come through and last year they didn't have to pay."

This year has seen the numbers of pickers employed drop. The nationalities change every year, but they like to employ a mix of cultures and languages.

Wealth of Nations. Photo: Lisa Ferguson.

Picking fruit is a difficult job, they work six days a week and it is a long season and they have to pick a good kilo per hour rate, and with wages being a major expense,"we can't have folk that lose us money."

This year has been particularly tough, she said, "with the pandemic it was hard and we were worried; were we going to get people and is the fruit going to be alright?"

She is sanguine, "If Rowan and I had got married when I first met him I wouldn't have been able to cope. I have been here for four years and it has been a hard slog, but this is where I'm meant to be."

Jennifer and Munro Marshall. Photo Lisa Ferguson.

Peter Marshall Farms

Muirton
Alyth
Perthshire
PH11 8JF

01828 632 227




muirton@petermarshallfarms.com

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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