Fruit growers in the South East looking for economies in machinery, equipment and labour use can achieve them by joining the Ring of Agricultural Machinery in Sussex and Kent (Ramsak). While such savings are becoming increasingly important to improve profits, it appears that too few growers are becoming members of the 20-year-old co-operative.
Angus Campbell, Ramsak's manager, reckons that 10-12 per cent of its 450 or so members are fruit growers, which is a relatively small proportion of the total in its area. Although he and his field officer Chris Smith would like to increase its membership, he says "we don't push for new members all the time".
However, no doubt some of those attending Norman Collett's second annual fruit machinery demonstration day considered becoming members after they had heard Campbell explaining advantages of the 'ring'. The event took place on 4 March on GH Dean's Hempsted Farm in Tonge, Sittingbourne, Kent.
Most of the participating 18 companies, representing a cross section of those serving the fruit industry, were Ramsak members offering their services to growers. Membership enables growers to share machinery so that it's more widely used to their financial advantage.
"The ethos behind the ring is to provide a useful service that enables suppliers to earn more money and users (growers) to save it," says Campbell. "The more you use the ring the more cost effective it is and the more reasons you can find to use it."
The ring acts as the intermediary between two members - that could mean growers wishing to share a machine with others, or a company hiring out machinery and/or labour. Growers request a service and the ring finds the most suitable and closest supplier. Full Ramsak membership costs £120 a year and self-employed membership £50.
There were several new machines on show at the event which growers can both purchase and hire. They included two displayed by Nick Seymour.
One was the £7,000 German Darwin blossom thinner that was first trialled and demonstrated in the UK last year. Seymour says that it is quite widely used in Germany - where growers claim to have achieved hand-thinning savings as high as 80 per cent. This means that the machine could pay for itself in one season on a farm that has, for example, 20ha of apples.
The offset hydraulically powered thinner - which is mounted at the front of the tractor - has a rotating vertical column carrying numerous 60cm-long nylon cords or strings that remove a proportion of the bloom from one side of the row at once. It's best suited to hedgerow growing systems and the optimum time for its use is when the king bloom is open, reckoned Seymour. It has a pretty high work rate - operating at 8k/h it can cover 12-16ha a day.
Seymour adds: "This year we hope to do a couple more trials but because the timing of the operation is so specific we say growers should be buying a machine because they cannot learn how to get the job done correctly without one."
He plans to hire out his machine to growers once or twice for about £1,000 a day. Seymour also brought along the new Fendt Vario, the first orchard and vineyard tractor to be equipped with completely stepless transmission. It's available in twoand four-wheel drive with power ratings of 70 bhp to 100bhp. Prices start at around £40,000.
John Deere dealer Burden Brothers was also showing a new orchard and vineyard tractor - the 5090GF which comes in twoand four-wheel drive and power ratings of 80, 90 and 100bhp.
It has numerous gearbox options and is powered by a 4.5litre Power Tech M engine. The company's Kris Romney said the "5 range" is John Deere's first to be specifically designed for orchard and vineyard use. The orchard version is 1.3m wide and the vineyard version 1.07m.
Several event participants catered for the increasing availability of, and grower interest in, green (and kitchen) waste compost. A number of orchard and strawberry trials funded by WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) have shown that the compost, incorporated pre-planting or applied to apple as a mulch post-planting, can significantly improve fruit yield and quality and tree or plant growth and reduce their fertiliser requirements.
Contractor Mike Colman showed a compost/straw spreader he had made from scratch. It's based on a rear-discharge dung spreader with a rear-adjustable cross conveyor for applying the compost beneath trees or vines.
He explains: "We can use it for spreading straw but we do mainly compost as more of it has become available and growers realise that it's better than straw. We're just getting more into the vineyard job because the machine has the advantages of being narrow and having a steering axle so it can easily get into rows where other spreaders can't."
The spreader is operated by an 80bhp Renault tractor with water-ballasted rear tyres to help prevent slippage. It has a chain and slat moving floor which is hydraulically-powered - as is the steering axle and side delivery conveyor. The tractor's PTO drives the beaters that shred the compost (or straw).
To ensure that the spreader's operating time is maximised it is refilled by a tractor loader bucket in the orchard or vineyard rather than being returned to the compost heap on uncropped land nearby. The bucket - operated by a second person - has the same capacity as the spreader, which is fitted with a hopper top to prevent spillage of the compost and so only one trip at a time is needed to fill it.
For growers wanting their own side-delivery compost spreader Seymour had the Agrofer on site. It sells for £9,000 but he has one available for hire.
GH Dean, on whose farm the event was held, had a £27,000 Whatcom spreader on show. The local agent Sayell Equipment (also at the event) imported the machine from the US. It holds 12.5 cubic yards of compost, has a double axle and unlike many spreaders has front end side delivery so that the tractor driver can ensure that the spread pattern under the trees is accurate.
The machine applied thousands of tonnes of compost to GH Dean's orchards last summer at the rate of several hundred tonnes a day, reported Oliver Doubleday who runs the farm. Since then it has been hired to local contractor Philip Bartholomew who used it on other farms in the area. Much of the compost is supplied by FGS Agri.
This company not only makes compost on five sites in England, including one at Sittingbourne, but also spreads it or delivers it to growers who have their own spreaders. FGS Agri recycling manager Alister Bruford said it produces around 180,000 tonnes of compost a year from green and food waste. It operates two side delivery spreaders suitable for orchards.
Aerators and other machinery
For growers with soil compaction problems agricultural contractor Hugh Goldsworthy demonstrated his £35,000 New Zealand-designed and made Gwazae soil aerator. It's semi-mounted with a complex power system including an integral diesel engine.
"You can get a huge amount of compaction in orchards (caused by tractor wheelings)," he reckons.
"We often find it below where growers have ploughed before replanting, 12in to 14in down. We use a penetrometer to measure compaction. Every farmer should have one."
The machine works by air being pumped into a vessel at extremely high pressure. This feeds into a 70cm-by-2.5cm-diameter hollow steel spike or probe that is pushed into the soil at a predetermined depth along the tree alley. The compressed air is released into the probe at around 630litres/second and up to 150psi and each blast can last for 0.1 to one second resulting in the shattering of the compacted soil across an area of up to 6m diameter or 3m from the blast centre. Liquid fertiliser or mycorrhiza and other materials can be injected through the probe's perforated tip.
The distance between each probe insertion depends largely on soil type and the penetration depth on how deep the compaction is, said Goldsworthy. The machine can cover some eight acres a day at an cost of about £130/acre.
Laying polythene mulch, a very important operation for strawberry bed-growing systems, was demonstrated by K&S Fumigation. It has a French machine for hiring out and for contract work have a specially-adapted one that can lay various widths of polythene - and at the same time inject chloropicrin and lay trickle tape or hose.
"This machine can lay four different polythene roll widths from 1.4m to 1.9m according to bed size," says David Heaton, the company's general manager.
"A lot of growers go off in their own direction for bed size and so we need a machine that's adaptable for all circumstances."
The machine has a work rate of at least five acres a day - even when it's also being used for fumigation and laying trickle irrigation lines.
Other companies taking part in the event were Pro-Tech Marketing, McVeigh Parker, Lamberhurst Engineering, Haynes, Lister Wilder, SJ Davey Fencing, Phil Ford, Agricare and Culverwells.