Knowledge for a sustainable world

Linden Kemkaran

Claudia Carvalho went from being a specialist in potatoes and other tuber and root crops at NRI, to becoming a soft fruit supremo at Berry Gardens, a leading berry and stone fruit production and marketing group in Kent, UK. Her love of crops and all things agricultural has also satisfied her love of travel, taking her from Europe to America, Africa and Asia . Claudia took five minutes out of her day to talk to NRI Communications Officer, Linden Kemkaran, about how she chose her career path and her ongoing passion for agriculture.

Claudia with potatoes 750I grew up in a small village in Portugal where my parents had a small-holding with pigs, chickens, vegetables and maize. I studied agricultural engineering and science at university in Portugal and the idea of the degree – which was five years in duration – was that you could graduate and immediately manage a farm. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I went to the University of Illinois in the US and did a nine-month research project on maize genetics instead.

My first job was in eco-efficiency and how to bring it to industry; that then led to a job looking at water quality in the environment. I then went to Angola to work in agronomy, again looking at maize and animals but after a while I felt the urge to learn more, so I returned to Portugal and enrolled in a Master’s in agricultural engineering and then worked on spraying quality mechanisation for a year. That led to a summer job in East Malling Research (NIAB EMR) in Kent where I began monitoring agricultural pests like Drosophila suzukii – a damaging fruit fly. I like to move around to different places and learn from each different posting – I’ve always found that very stimulating.

I started at NRI as a PhD student in November 2013 and I specialised in potatoes –characterising changes in nutritional quality during storage. I was interested in extending storage and the shelf-life of fresh produce to improve scheduling of UK-grown produce into the retail market, as well as to manage unpredictable transit times of imported produce whilst maintaining nutritional quality. My goal at the time was to develop a sustainable programme of research to support the UK potato industry.

During my time as a PhD student, I was an active member of the NRI Postgraduate Society (NRIPS) and took part in their research symposia and the many and varied leisure activities! I also presented posters atClaudia and James 750 conferences and research events and won several prizes, including: 1st place, Faculty of Engineering & Science PGR Student Poster Competition, RETI, University of Greenwich (2017 Postgraduate Research Excellence Awards); 2nd place in the Poster presentation at the 4th International Horticulture Research Conference (2017); and 2nd place in the Poster presentation at the Agrisciences Young Researchers 2015: Crop Production, Protection and Utilisation event, SCI – Society of Chemical Industry (2015).

After my PhD, I stayed on to become an NRI Research Fellow and I absolutely loved my time there – the people, the environment – it was like a family. In 2020, my partner James died suddenly, and the outpouring of love and care from my colleagues really kept me going. My family is in Portugal, so during lockdown and without NRI, I would have really struggled.

James had been such an important part of my life; we’d been together since early 2016 and he really helped me through the final part of my PhD. He would cook for me and made sure I took time to eat, he comforted me when I came home in tears fearing that I’d never complete my research. He celebrated with me when I finally passed. When he died during the first Covid lockdown it was really, incredibly tough.

I joined Berry Gardens just after losing James and my colleagues who know what I’ve been through have been just as lovely to me. My job title is ‘New Variety and Development Manager’ which means I’m the manager of the two trial sites that we have. It’s with some relief that I’ve been able to throw myself into my work.

Berry Gardens is a cooperative of UK growers, with one trial site near Maidstone, Kent and another in Perth, Scotland. We try to find new and exciting varieties of fruit for our growers. I’m responsible for trialling the fruits to find new technologies to find out what works and what doesn’t. The market is constantly searching for new flavours and is always interested in longer shelf-life possibilities. I’ve learned that different countries have different palates – for example, here in the UK, the consumer tends to like sweeter raspberries, whereas in Poland they prefer a slightly sour variety.

Varieties that produce good numbers of berries along with a superior flavour will always be in demand and I can’t say too much more because some of the things we are currently working on are top secret!

We work closely with universities and have always had a great relationship with NRI at the University of Greenwich which is great because I still get to chat to my old colleagues there, I feel very lucky.

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Berry Gardens