Three judges took two very long days to determine the best of the 76 entries for the East Kent Fruit Society's (EKFS) orchard competition. They decided that the orchard of the year was HW Twyman's Braeburn in the any other dessert apple class, which excludes Cox - the only dessert variety to have a class of its own.
This was the first time that Newborn Farm in East Kent, run by Stephen Twyman and his manager Ken Smith, has won the top accolade and Twyman was consequently chosen to host the society's walk on 17 August, attended by some 70 members.
Twyman also won awards for the outstanding orchard with under 1,000 trees per acre, the orchard with the best hygiene and the farm with the most commercial potential.
Another high performer was Simon Mount of New Barn Farm, Stourmouth, East Kent, who won awards for the best new entrant, the best young orchard and the best orchard with more than 1,000 trees per acre. In addition, his Conference headed the pear class.
Other class winners were AJ Bruce-Lockhart, Court Lodge Farm, Egerton, Kent (Cox and Bramley's Seedling), Adrian Scripps, Wenderton Farm, Wingham, East Kent (most commercial orchard), FW Mansfield, Norton Farm, Norton, Teynham, North Kent (plums) and Sandys Dawes, Mount Ephraim Farm, Hernhill, Faversham, North Kent (cherries).
The judges were retired growers Jack Martin and Philip Charlton and former grower and Worldwide Fruit technical director (procurement) John Guest. Their steward was the Farm Advisory Services Team's (FAST) James Shillitoe.
Guest, who runs a website (www.theenglishappleman.com) covering all topical aspects of top fruit production, says judging was "a great way of seeing a fair chunk of fruit in Kent". The general standard of entries was pretty good, he added, "because nobody enters unless they have a good orchard". This meant that the number of points separating the best entries from the others was usually very small. However, the crops in a number of Cox orchards were quite patchy - with some trees having plenty of fruit on one side but not enough on the other.
Guest noted that fruit size had been down considerably about six weeks before judging took place, but thanks to a period of warm days and nights at an above average rate, it has now virtually caught up to where it was at this time last year.
"We had plenty of winter rain and so most established trees have their roots well down (into moisture) and have not suffered from the lack of rain, but young trees have needed watering to keep them going (and produce good sized fruit)," he says.
Despite Cox's patchy crop, Guest still predicts that it will exceed the market's requirement. The consensus of opinion is that around 25,000 tonnes will satisfy demand and anything higher, like 2009's 45,000 tonnes, means that supermarkets have to resort to "bogofs" or other types of promotion to stimulate sales. As a result, growers do not get the decent return they need. There was a time when Cox production was a high as 120,000 tonnes, he recalls.
Cox's declining area is being "invaded" by varieties such as Braeburn and Gala, whose entries in the competition carried plenty of fruit, as did the other dessert apple varieties, namely Jazz, Kanzi, Cameo and Rubens.
"We did see one Gala orchard where the bottom (branches) had caught a bit of frost," says Guest. "At flowering, there was concern that conditions weren't right (too cold) for good pollen tube growth, but with so much bloom a set of only about five per cent was needed for a good crop."
There were some very good entries of Braeburn (as well as Twyman's), which Guest believes is a very reliable apple whose fruit size this season is a little above average.
The judges considered that Simon Mount's Rubens orchard, which won second prize in the "any other dessert apple" class, was of a very high standard and, according to Guest, "fantastic for the evenness of the trees and the right spacing for the soil type".
They were also very impressed by Bruce-Lockhart's Bramley's Seedling, which won the hotly-contested culinary class and was entered by farm manager John Harper. "It was very, very good because it was a big, mature orchard with very uniform trees whose management was superb," Guest explains.
He says all of the entries for the pear class were pretty good. Mount's winning orchard was of the traditional bush type that had been well pruned and was cropping exceptionally well for its type. It proved that an orchard did not have to be "super modern" to win.
Guest adds that Adrian Scripps' winning commercial orchard is a consistently good money spinner producing a heavy yield of a readily saleable product. Had its good performance this year been a one-off, it would not have won - it has to have a history of excellence to do so.
The orchard's variety was Gala, planted in 2004 and supported by individual tree stakes. Scripps was also second in the same class with a very similar Gala orchard of the same age.
Guest reports that he first saw Twyman's champion orchard just after it had been planted five years ago and is pleased that it is fulfilling its early promising potential. Its trees are on M9 and spaced at 3.4m by 1.2m with Malus pollinators at one-in-10, each taking up a tree space.
However, Twyman has told his visitors that he is uncertain whether pollinators are really necessary. "Even without them we might have the same crop," he asserts. "In future we will probably still have them, though, but grow them as (pillars) so that they do not take up a tree space."
The trees in the winning orchard are supported by individual stakes with substantial 2.5m-tall timber posts at 10m intervals carrying a top wire and another just below it and a wire on each side of the trees about 75cm above ground level. These are attached to steel cross pieces secured to the posts. Their purpose is to support the lower branches, which tend to flop down, so that their fruit is clear of the ground.
But FAST's Don Vaughan and his colleague Shillitoe question whether the bottom wires are necessary. Vaughan says a better and easier alternative is to tip the lower feathers to stiffen them so that they are not brought down by the weight of fruit. This approach has worked well for Gala and also produced better balanced trees, he claims.
Of the winning orchard's two clones, Hillwell and NAKB, Twyman says he much prefers Hillwell and would not plant NAKB again despite its yielding about 30 per cent more. Its big shortcoming is that the fruit does not colour anywhere near as well as Hillwell's.
Last year, Hillwell coloured so well that around 80 per cent of it was cleared in the first pick and the rest in the second. In contrast, NAKB required three picks and was "still a bit green" on the final round.
The orchard's yield build-up has been impressive. It produced 106 bins/ha in year two, 67 bins/ha in year three when it was hit by frost and 190 bins/ha in year four. This year it has a full crop estimated at 198 bins/ha.
"We've got good crops everywhere," claims Twyman, who grows 19ha of Cox, 8ha of Gala, 7ha of Braeburn, 4ha of Bramley's Seedling and 2ha of Jonagored (plus 61ha of blackcurrants). Until five years ago, his area of Cox was far larger, but he has since been replacing it with higher quality and yielding varieties.
"We've not been making any money out of Cox and the orchards we've been grubbing were pretty old," he explains. "It's very difficult to get the 80 per cent plus class I gradeout we need for the variety and for the older orchards it was down to around 60 per cent."
After harvest 2011 he plans to grub another 4ha of Cox that has gone biennial and has collar rot. This year, the orchard's estimated crop is a mere 10bins/ha and so in 2011 it should yield very heavily, which is why it's being retained for another year. It will probably be replaced with Gala.
"We'll end up with about 10ha of Cox, all around 12 years old and in good nick," says Twyman. "One piece of 1.85ha is double row and always has a nice crop of good quality."
Twyman is confident that he has sufficient Braeburn and for his future plantings he will opt for Gala - "a good grower's apple". It has the added advantages of colouring well, having nice eating quality and producing a good yield and class I gradeout.
The visitors saw three of his Gala orchards, two of the Schniga clone and a recently planted Mitchgla clone. They have the same spacing as Braeburn, 3.4m by 1.2m, which gives a tree population of around 2,200/ha.
All of his Cox was thinned and pruned by 15 Polish workers "loaned" to him by a near neighbour, Clive Goatham. Agency labour plus a small local gang will pick his crop using bin trains with his own bins. It is expected to total 3,000 to 3,500 bins, the most to date.
In the past, the crop was stored in hired facilities and marketed by Worldwide Fruit. This season, however, it is all being sold "at the foot of the ladder" to Goatham, who will also store, grade, pack and market it.