Cider apple growers told how to get better returns

England's cider apple growers have a unique and valuable product but it is giving them inadequate returns because they are not best meeting the needs of cider makers at home and failing to take advantage of growing opportunities for overseas sales, according to a leading figure in the industry.

Orchards: understanding of mechanisation among strengths that could help UK to dominate global cider market - image: HW
Orchards: understanding of mechanisation among strengths that could help UK to dominate global cider market - image: HW

In his recently published report detailing findings from his Nuffield scholarship, third-generation Somerset farmer and Orchard Park Farm owner Neil Macdonald said the boom in UK cider sales has now largely levelled off, particularly at the mass-market end, leading to oversupply as newly planted orchards come into production.

Orchard Park Farms manages modern and traditional orchards across Somerset, for which Macdonald has won awards. He is also co-founder of regional cider and juice maker Orchard Pig and sits on the steering group of the National Association of Cider Makers pomology committee. His scholarship has taken him to the USA, Australia and Europe since the start of 2014.

"I witnessed first-hand that America and Europe are well under way with projected growth of cider consumption but have no ability to grow cider apples fast enough to meet this demand," he said. "There is no better location to grow cider apples than here in the UK, where we have the knowledge, structure, stability and brand to deliver."

In a short time the UK has gone from being by some way the majority consumer of the world's cider to consuming 47 per cent last year. Global consumption is predicted to keep growing by around five per cent a year, from 2.4 billion litres in 2015 to more than three billion litres by 2020, with 70 per cent of the extra expected to come from the USA, Australia and South Africa, he said.

The growth of the US market has been particularly dramatic, quadrupling in value since 2010, though this is now slowing, Macdonald pointed out. "The vast majority of cider globally is not made with bittersweet cider apples. In fact, of 360 million tonnes of apples required to generate the three billion litres globally projected for 2020, one might expect only 10 per cent to be bittersweet."

But while there is "huge interest" in bittersweets in these growth markets "it is really only the UK, northern France and some small areas of Spain that are producing any quantity of bittersweet apples", he said, urging UK growers to "try to dominate the bittersweet cider fruit market globally".

The UK is well placed to achieve this because it has good quality nurseries, a stable economy, processing infrastructure and an understanding of mechanisation supported by able engineers, he said. "We can get bittersweet concentrate across the water to America at a fraction of the cost they could produce it themselves, giving us a significant market opportunity."

But in the UK, which has seen the area of cider orchards more than double over the past ten years with the aim of supplying the home market, "the likelihood is that most growers are now selling apples at less than their true cost of production", Macdonald warned. "(Returns of) £135 per tonne would leave a significant enterprise loss over (an orchard's) 25-year period, and £135 per tonne is already the top end of market rate. If we want to make money, we need to be over two times more than that."

He proposed a variety of remedies, including: "Push out some of the older and less productive orchards, slow down our new plantings, which are still taking place at relatively alarming rates, and focus very strongly on the most profitable areas of fruit production".

Meanwhile, there has been no substantial research in cider apple production since this ceased at Somerset's Long Ashton Research Station in 1986, said Macdonald. "One of my biggest concerns is the need for research and development. Do we have varieties that are fit for the next decade to combat the growing costs of agro-chemicals and static or reducing product value?"

This is a key part of meeting the demands of the home market, he pointed out. "We want to be clear about what it is our cider makers really want to pay for. Besides liquid volume, tannin, acidity and sugar, clean, crisp, easy-to-process apples are vital to good profitability. They also want to prolong the season with varieties that will mature both early and late." In return, he said: "Cider makers should be prepared to pay a premium for the fruit that gives them the best margin."

However: "Growers have shown very little interest in research, innovation or indeed cooperation. Equally, cider makers are not always very good at communicating with their growers."

To rectify this he urged growers' support for "modern technologies in plant development to deliver (breeding) advances in under 15 years", suggesting "a levy system on growers to support real research". He pointed out that French growers pay a EUR3 levy per tonne towards research and development, "which they consider to have huge value to forward-thinking production".

Backing this up, Macdonald said: "I intend to develop a centre of excellence for cider apple production in Somerset with a view to increasing knowledge and new techniques." Macdonald's scholarship was supported by the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers.

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