Fruit farm manager celebrates rewarding season with three orchard awards

With three major orchard competition wins to his credit, this season is proving the most successful in Brian Tompsett's long fruit-farm management career.

Tompsett is Tesco's top fruit grower of the year and also the overall winner of both the East Kent Fruit Society's and the Goudhurst & Paddock Wood NFU orchard management competitions - the latter sponsored by English fruit marketer Norman Collett. He is also top and soft fruit manager at Alan Firmin.

During an orchard walk on 30 July, more than 80 visitors saw why Alan Firmin's Blue House Farm, Marden, Kent, was judged the best of the 19 entered for the 58th Goudhurst & Paddock Wood NFU competition.

Despite early April's severe frosts, Bluehouse's Bramley, Egremont Russet and Conference pear orchards are carrying full crops while its Braeburn orchards are not far behind. In a bad year for scab, evidence of its presence was very hard to find; and the same went for codling moth damage, which is normally quite bad on the farm.

"Scab has been more difficult to control than usual this season and it's possible to find a bit in each orchard," admitted Tompsett, who also manages Firmin's Wares Farm in Linton, near Maidstone, and BB Firmin's Campfield Farm, Boughton Monchelsea, a few miles away.

"Although our neighbours have had higher codling moth catches than usual, ours have been the lowest ever," he added. "This seems to be a bad year for fireblight. We've had some in our pears, russets and Braeburn."

Despite being on the lowest-lying part of the farm and, therefore, the most frost-prone, Bluehouse Farm's 2.1ha of Conference pears are performing remarkably well. The reason for this, said Tompsett, is that very little of their bloom was open in early April, making them less susceptible to frost damage.

"On the higher ground (on other farms) a lot of bloom was open (in early April) and so it was hit harder by the frosts," recalled Tompsett. "Not many growers have had to thin their pears but we've done so twice. Northern Europe's pear also suffered. Although I saw some fantastic pear crops during a recent visit to Holland; there were also some very light ones."

Blue House Farm, bought by Firmin in 1999, has 7.55ha of Egremont Russet, 7.31ha of Braeburn and 6.44ha of Bramleys. Tompsett told his visitors that a good deal of grubbing and replanting had been done in recent years, all intensive on M9 at tree spacings of 1.1m for Egremont Russet and 1.2m for Braeburn with 3.25m alleys.

A 2.32ha Cameo/M9 orchard will be planted this autumn with a 1m tree spacing, giving a tree population of 3,076/ha. Its support system will be wire trellis with the trees tied to bamboo canes. This system is preferred to individual tree stakes, because the stakes cause shading and fruit resting against them can be marked. There is little cost difference between the two systems.

Tompsett said that his four-year-old Braeburn yielded 40 tonnes/ha last year and he is anticipating 60 tonnes/ha or even 80 tonnes/ha maximum. But to achieve this, it is important to avoid too many drooping branches as they produce smaller fruit and weaker growth.

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