Fresh look at fruit research

Changes are afoot as new management gears up to strengthen links with industry, says Jack Shamash.

Until last month there was a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the National Fruit Collection, which is based at Brogdale in Kent. No one was sure who would run it or where it would be sited. And disagreements with the landlord were delaying developments at the site.

Shortly before Christmas, at the end of a tendering process, Defra decided to reject a bid by the Brogdale Horticultural Trust, which currently manages the Brogdale Farm site. From April, the collection will be run by the University of Reading in conjunction with Farm Advisory ServicesTeam (FAST).

According to the new management team, the changes will lead to major improvements. The collection will have closer links with industry and with the major academic and research establishments both in Britain and abroad. The new team believes that the collection can be used to educate the public and promote fruit more effectively. Some of the team suggests that, as a tourist attraction, the collection could even rival the success of the Eden Project.

FAST managing director Tim Biddlecombe explains: "There are going to be a lot of changes. For the past 10 years it has been run for amateur gardeners only. Now it will be more relevant to commercial growers."

The collection contains an impressive number of plants - including 1,880 varieties of apples and 469 varieties of pears. It has at least two specimens of each variety and the plants are propagated regularly to ensure that the specimens in the collection are in a healthy condition. The collection currently occupies around 20ha. The adjoining 41ha belongs to the same land-owner, Hill Reed Land.

The main focus of the collection will be on scientific research. University of Reading head of horticulture and landscape Professor Paul Hadley explains: "This is a live collection, with specimens that have to be maintained and studied. It is a tremendously valuable scientific resource."

Hadley claims that Reading university is uniquely qualified to do this kind of work. For the past 25 years, Hadley and his colleagues have maintained the International Cocoa Quarantine Collection, which maintains cocoa plants to ensure that they are free from disease prior to shipping. Reading is also the centre for Species 2000, a huge database of plants.

Around eight staff at Reading will be involved in the project. In addition, Hadley will be appointing a research fellow who will divide their time between Reading and Brogdale. The research fellow will be involved in the continuous work of classifying the huge number of specimens, looking at their physical characteristics and the molecular make-up. "This can be very important," says Hadley. "When some of these varieties were first identified, no one was very interested in whether, for example, they had a high vitamin C content. These are factors we have to look at carefully."

The research fellow will also be responsible for cryo-preservation - maintaining some specimens at very low temperatures. "We will be keeping bud-wood in liquid nitrogen," says Hadley. "We will be working closely with the Nordic Fruit Collection on this."

Hadley says he intends to use the collection as a major tool for research. The specimens will be available to students doing specialist research and for teaching practical skills to commercial horticulturists. Hadley also anticipates that Reading will be able to collaborate with the Scottish Crop Research Institute on major projects.

The new management team hopes to make some changes. The collection currently has a great many varieties of traditional British crops such as apples and pears, but relatively few varieties of fruit that are usually grown in warmer climates. For example, it only has 10 varieties of apricot. Hadley wants to shift the balance. "Because of climate change, some minor crops may be more important in the future," he says.

He envisages that his research team will use the collection to look at the exact mechanisms by which fruit plants adapt to climate change. This will help identify or create those varieties that are best able to cope with new conditions.

The staff at Reading are keen to help in the development of more commercially viable varieties of fruits. Although Hadley rejects the idea of doing GM research, he is keen to do genomic research - looking for genetic markers, which will show whether a new plant is going to produce fruit with particular characteristics. This will make it much quicker and cheaper to breed new types of plants. "We need to develop techniques to ascertain the characteristics of a plant very quickly," he says.

He also hopes that industry will have a greater role. He believes that Reading's team of academics can swap scientific expertise with industry counterparts. The collection will also be able to offer specimens that can be used to propagate commercial fruit plants. These will usually be in the form of a branch grafted to a root stock. To accomplish these aims, he accepts that he may need commercial sponsorship.

FAST hopes that, working closely with the Reading university staff, it will be able to undertake serious commercial research. Biddlecombe explains: "We hope to do work that will be useful for industry. We want to run trials on varieties, spacing, growing systems and ranges of fertiliser."

He points out that because the money from Defra only covers basic site maintenance, these additional trials would have to be funded by FAST itself, by the HDC or by private firms.

He adds: "It's very early days. We have been informed by Defra that we've won the contract, but the actual documents haven't been signed yet. There are still details to work out."

In addition to the scientific work, it is hoped the collection will stir up public interest and create the same sort of enthusiasm that other high-profile attractions have generated.

A social enterprise (not-for-profit) company, Brogdale Collections, will be running the "public benefit" side of the tender. It will be in charge of staging exhibitions, running festivals and events and ensuring that the collections are available to the public, schools and colleges. Among the directors of this firm are Tom La Dell, a landscape architect, and Tony Hillier, a director of the company that owns the land. La Dell has also set up a company that currently runs the tea room and restaurant and will continue to do so after the handover.

La Dell explains: "We want to tell people about the benefits of fruit and open them up to education. We need to learn from the Eden Project and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew so that we can get people excited about fruit and diversity."

As a landscape architect, La Dell is keen to exhibit the fruit plants and trees more effectively. He envisages a series of 20 gardens, arranged to show the history of fruit growing. "In the past, fruit was often grown as an ornamental crop. We want to show how fruits have been grown throughout the years."

If possible, he would like to have examples of fruit trees grown in walled gardens or trained along wires. Similar plans had been drawn up by the Brogdale Horticultural Trust but, according to the trust, had been delayed because of disputes with the land owner.

The landowner has already started work on a market centre, which will house 10 shops. La Dell explains: "We call that area the marketplace. Fruit production should be closely linked to the sale of fruit."

The tea room and restaurant will also be "site specific", offering freshly cooked local foods. "We hope to get local chefs doing cookery demonstrations. For example, we hope to use fresh local produce such as meat with local plums or cherries," says La Dell.

These changes will leave the old Brogdale Horticultural Trust without any obvious function. But chief executive Jane Garrett says she has no plans to wind up the trust: "The trust will continue to pursue its conservation, educational and research goals. We will work out precisely how we will do this over the next six months."

HISTORY

The National Fruit Collection has a long history. Established in Chiswick in the 1800s by the RHS, it published its first catalogue in 1826. In 1952 the Ministry of Agriculture took control of the collection, which was moved to Brogdale.

In 1990 the site was sold and leased back by Defra. The site is currently owned by Hill Reed Land.

The job of administering and maintaining the collection was given to the Brogdale Horticultural Trust, which has worked in conjunction with the University of London and Imperial College to ensure that the collection is an international centre of scientific research.

The Brogdale Horticultural Trust had been hoping to move to the collection to East Malling, which has one of the major fruit research establishments. But under the new arrangements, the collection will stay where it is.

Imperial College and the Brogdale Horticultural Trust will no longer be involved. Instead, the collection will be run by the University of Reading. Farm Advisory Services Team, which gives technical support to fruit growers, will be responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of the collection.


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