An introduction to the UK orchard scene by John Edgeley of Pershore College started the days. John briefly outlined the three main orchards types out there:
- Commercial fresh fruit
- emphasis on fruit "quality" (and I write that in inverted commas, as it is in my opinion debatable what is intended by the word)
- cone shaped trees most light efficient
- reduced amount of pesticide linked to increase concern about wildlife conservation
- crop cover (among other things to enhance pollination)
- trials of mechanised tree trimming, windbrakes to increase temperature & pollination
- monitoring of fruit ripeness (iodine for starch etc)
- harvesting by hand but increased mechanisation (picking platforms and bulk bin trays)
- cold and controlled atmosphere (CA) storage
- emphasis on fruit yield
- increased tree height (means more shade and shedding of bottom branches)
- new varieties to improve tree shape
- increase in sales has meant more plantings and new training opportunities
- harvesting: hand picked, allowed to fall, shaken from trees (shake and catch harvester)
- mechanisation means increased potential amage to soil structure
- soiling of fruit penalised by processors (grass for clean samples, washing impacts longevity)
- bruised fruit needs processing within 48 hrs
- emphasis on conservation of landscape feature/genetic resource/wildlife habitat (i.e. Noble Chafer)
- new planting needed to fill gaps but finances a problem
- some income from sales of fruit; Heritage Lottery and Landfill Community Funds
- several projects ongoing
A commercial producer, Michael Bentley of Castle Fruit Farms, introduced us to his recently created orchard where he grows trees for maximum efficiency by growing trees with double leaders, in order to maximise cropping and minimise labour (which takes up 2/3 of his costs - fuel electricity and fertiliser only adding up to 3% but pesticides costs running into the 20k/yr).
His key issues are:
- soil fertility (green waste at 3% N and fertigation to get the trees to full production within 5 yrs)
- mild winters causing poor vernalisation and pollination
- seasonal labour (he needs 30-35 people during the fruit season)
- pollination (he called bees "lazy pollinators" and is more keen to encourage moths, bumbles and hoverflies)
- pest control (pesticides kill the beneficial insects as well as the pests!)
With the great enthusiasm of the trainer and evangelist, Dave pointed out that traditional orchards were planted by hard-nosed farmers, not just for the environmental reasons we value them today, so restoring and operating them should come with a profit, and it does for them. Last year they managed to sell fruit for 7 months of the year, but they are also training the community to accept the fact that fruit - like all agricultural products - is naturally not there all year round.
And he finds his orchard is "fantastically biodiverse" (9 species of bat, 30 species of birds, 70 species of plant and 120 species of insects in his uninproved grassland) and that beekeepers are keen to take hives to his land because of the no-spray regime that is best for bees. Some funding he receives from Countryside Stewardship and Natural England schemes, and he got a grant from the Gloucestershire Environment Trust.
The day was concluded by a presentation of Adrian Barlow, English Apples and Pears Ltd, the trade association, who run through the recent and prospective developments of the Industry:
- 1970s competition from Europe
- 1980s greengrocers and wholesalers model change
- 1990s causing a 36% reduction in hectarage
- 2000s consumer concerns about locally grown food and traceability, as well as chemical residues; "plant protection products" expensive for growers too; large investment in packhouses and coldstores about efficiency and more precise grading
But what really struck me is the amount of work that is placed in sensory and appearance research to decide which cultivars will be popular and on finding the right name to market them successfully... isn't it a curious world where only the apples with the right balance of colours on their skin get eaten? The current fad seems to be bi-colour and vibrant; green is off, being associated with acidity and so is yellow, thought to indicate over-ripeness!
Investment at the moment is stifled by concerns about recouping it on the market, and Russia has been a major importer, so when it closed to imports the market became really unbalanced. The market for apples and pears in the UK (dessert, culinary, cider etc) is just over 700,000 tonnes - I have tried to double check that on the Government's Basic Horticultural Statistics but groupings of fruit are not entirely clear; in any case, we import about 2/3 of the apples we use (although there seem to be some support by the "multiples" for British products, that can fetch a 25% premium).
As this week I need to research apple cultivars for our Crop of the Week exercise, I have summarised below the considerations made about common and future cultivars as they were mentioned (together with some research I did myself for the homegrown market).
Most popular cultivars
Flavour, good storage quality,
Specific season (early, late), disease resistance, reliable cropping
Sweet taste, firm and juicy texture, vibrant skin colour, no russeting/marks
‘Gala’ 26% of the market (up from 16% in 2003)
‘Braeburn’ 18% (up from 1% in 2003)
‘Zari’ (early, Sept apple)
‘Egremont Russet’ 35k tonnes/yr (of some 750k market) best sold traditional UK cultivar
‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ 23k tonnes/yr
There is a marketing campaign on in UK for ‘Bramley’ organised by the
Novelty, local and traditional
T&M Apple 'Isaac Newton' (Malus domestica, Apple 'Flower of Kent') hefty cooking apples with an old-fashioned, bumpy shape
Frank P. Matthews ‘Little Pax®’ stunning spring flowers, from 19th century St. Cecilia’s Abbey on Isle of Wight
‘Rosette®’ sport or seedling of ‘Discovery’ red-fleshed from Worcestershire
Good taste and flavour, free of defects and russeting, skin colour vibrant, rapid fruit production (within 5 yrs), fruit size (not too big) and consistency (80% at least of the fruit being class 1) at higher yields (up to 70 tonnes/ha); replace imports, new early varieties and sell later ones even later (i.e. 'Cameo' has potential). 'Sweet Sensation' new cultivar being tested; 'Opal' to get into the 'Golden Delicious' market.