THE Vale of Evesham was, for many years, known across the country for its market gardening and fruit and vegetable production.

And now a new crop, introduced from Canada five years ago, has sparked a wave of interest and investment in a Pershore business.

Pershore Juneberries Ltd was set up a couple of years ago by former gardener and Pershore College student Sophie Sidaway.

Sophie, from Pinvin, was studying on an organics course at Pershore College and the parent organisation Warwickshire College Group was offering a grant for a good business idea.

She had been looking for a crop that was new, could be managed organically and sustainably and eaten straight off the tree as well as being cooked. It also had to be able to survive in the Vale of Evesham climate and soil conditions.

Juneberries, which are grown extensively in Canada, ticked all the boxes and she won the grant to be able to bring 300 saplings from Alberta and plant them on a quarter of an acre of ground at Pershore College.

The trees are now eight years old and producing fruit about the size of a blueberry but in bunches like grapes. Sophie has been harvesting these sweet and nutty tasting berries by hand but has now been awarded a £5,300 LEADER grant for harvesting equipment.

Sophie said: “My main concern was that I wanted to grow something that is a future food and I wanted to grow something that would survive.

“Early harvests were possible picking berries by hand, but as yields grew, it was necessary to automate. We needed berry harvesting equipment but with the limited resources of a start-up, were looking for a match funding grant scheme.”

Last year Sophie borrowed a harvester from another fruit producer and with her LEADER grant has been able to buy an identical machine.

“Since using the berry harvester, Pershore Juneberries has become much more efficient, fruit waste has been reduced, and ultimately our turnover has increased."

The LEADER programme delivered by Worcestershire County Council, is designed to help communities contribute to the local economy and help businesses to grow and create additional employment.

It is part of the Rural Development Programme for England and is delivered locally by Worcestershire County Council and the Worcestershire Local Action Group on behalf of Defra.

Although Sophie set out to produce a crop with many benefits and uses, she has discovered the most popular product and best seller has turned out to be her Juneberry Gin Liqueur, which she supplies to farm shops and sells at food festivals.

She had been producing a number of Juneberry products including vinegars and syrups but is now concentrating on the liqueur.

“I started off thinking I could have a business just selling soft fruit but it has not worked out that way,” she said.

Last summer Sophie’s juneberries won the Most Meritorius Fruit Exhibit at the National Cherry and Soft Fruit Show in Kent. She has also bought an additional 5,000 saplings which are planted on another site but not yet producing fruit.