Delayed apple harvest hit by picker dearth

Bad weather conditions, low sugar levels and small fruit size have delayed apple harvests in the South East and the Midlands, which means that growers have been short of pickers as students left before the end of the season.

Despite calls from the Quality Fruit Group (QFG) not to delay harvesting, many growers have waited for more size and sugar in their crops, according to managing director Tim Biddlecombe of consultancy Farm Advisory Service Team.

He said: "We've been encouraging growers to pick Gala earlier because evidence from our work and that of East Malling Reseach shows sugar goes up more in store than on the tree. Colour has not been a problem at all this season."

Biddlecombe believes that the loss of picking time in early September was greater in the west Midlands than it was in the South East. Another problem was, and still is, that many growers have insufficient pickers and so the operation has been slower than usual.

As a result, a significant volume of Cox was picked later than the optimum time for long-term storage with more going into short-term storage than intended.

As with Gala, Bramley's smaller- than-usual fruit size and large fruit numbers prompted many growers to wait for it to increase in size before picking. As a result, its volume is expected to be close to last year's 85,000 tonnes. However, growers have been warned by the QFG that the variety is at high risk of developing low-temperature breakdown, induced mainly by the dull, cool summer.

To help prevent the problem, the QFG recommends that fruit picked after mid-September and/or which has a phosphorus level below 9mg/100g fresh weight is stored in a controlled atmosphere for post-Christmas harvesting at 4.5 degsC instead of 3.5 degsC to 4 degsC.

Nigel Kitney, a West Midlands grower and Hutchinsons' fruit adviser for the area, said that Gala's low sugar and a regional lack of colour were worrying growers. He said that this makes him wonder if Braeburn that will be picked on medium sites on 18-20 October will suffer the same problem.

Apart from on the earlier, light soil sites as in the Ross-on-Wye area, the wet start to September did not affect Cox picking because its optimum picking date was the 15 October. When Kitney finished his second Cox pick in early October it was "still as hard as bullets". Although the variety was initially slow to colour, it did so tremendously between the first and second picks.

Kitney said: "Because it's been a late season, our regular student pickers have returned home and we're now struggling for pickers.

"Every time I phone round growers to see if they have any spare pickers they say they were about to phone me to ask the same question. It's been a hard and tricky season for all of us."

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