The family-run firm, spread across 17 farms in Kent, received its award for a six-year-old Zari orchard on its Shrubbery Farm in Eastry, near Sandwich. The win is timely for the firm as it prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary next year.
Owner Clive Goatham, who runs the business with his son Ross, invited EKFS members to visit the farm on the evening of 16 August, telling the group: "Winning this competition means a lot to me and the whole team. In our opinion it's the number one competition in the whole (top fruit) industry, so to finish first is an amazing accolade."
Goatham also thanked his staff members, saying: "I am very proud of all of them. They all share the same commitment and attention to what they do." Two such team members are farm manager Peter Bukowski and technical director Nigel Stewart, who led visitors around some of Shrubbery Farm's 11ha of Gala, 3ha of Braeburn, 7ha of Cox and 10ha of pears, as well as its 14ha of Zari.
A relatively early variety grown exclusively for Sainsbury's, Zari has a crunchy texture, pale flesh and a pink-red blush to the skin. Stewart pointed out that the winning orchard, which on the day of the tour was bursting with fruit and just two weeks away from being harvested, was "just coming in at 40-45 tonnes per hectare this year". He added: "We had hoped for 50 when we took the orchard on, but this is the best it looks. At the moment the variety is a bit up and down. Some years it only bears 25-30 tonnes."
As with all of the orchards seen on the walk, the winning Zari orchard is on a post-and-wire system, with 3m-high canes planted at 1.2m spacings in rows 3.5m apart. Crab apple and Golden Delicious trees are used as pollinators. "Zari is a vigorous, woody tree that needs some management. You really have to work at it," said Bukowski.
The orchard is painstakingly hand-thinned but not so far root-pruned, a technique he has however carried out on some of the farm's Gala trees as a chemical-free way to control their vigour. This is done using a machine with a blade that slices 80cm into the ground and about half-a-metre away from the tree trunks at a 45 degs angle. "We are just putting a cut in the roots," he told HW. "It's quite a new practice, common in pears but not in Gala."
Competition judge and horticultural consultant Andrew Tinsley said: "This business has worked hard to achieve a winning farm. Across all of their farms, they do not just say: 'That's how it works.' They are always tweaking how they do things and going overseas to see what other people are doing. They don't skimp. They are not afraid to say: 'We are going to put a substantial area of that in and make it work.' You get the feeling when you go onto their farms that all of their orchards are well managed and something to be proud of. Saying that, most of the orchards in the completion this year were a very high standard."