Growers highlight need to reduce labour costs

Progressively reducing labour costs is essential in an era of consistently low returns for top-fruit growers, Broadwater Farm manager Peter Checkley told British Independent Fruit Growers Association members on their spring walk at the farm near West Malling, Kent, on 11 May.

Darwin: blossom thinner in use at Broadwater Farm - image: HW
Darwin: blossom thinner in use at Broadwater Farm - image: HW

Explaining that the farm has been gradually mechanising its growing, a process under way for "five or six" years and still ongoing, Checkley said: "The value of our product is going down, so we need to produce it for less money - we want a factory process."

During the tour, the farm's tractor-mounted Darwin blossom thinner was in use for its fourth year. "I'm a big fan of it, but there's a learning curve," he said. "We use it from 5am till 10pm for about five days a year. Some varieties need harder thinning than others, which you control by how fast it spins. We will still be hand-thinning but for quality, not quantity."

The 170ha farm has 80ha of apples, having gone from mostly culinary to now 70 per cent dessert. "We have grubbed large areas of unproductive fruit for arable," Checkley explained. "We never replace apples directly with apples. We plant them in stubble." A Bramleys orchard that was planted in the 1990s "has about five years left" then will revert to arable. "But they will be replaced elsewhere on the farm. Apart from anything else, we need to spread our harvest."

The newest Bramleys orchard is planted on "slow" rootstocks because "we want to do as little to them as we can", said Checkley. "I don't want to use secateurs at all. I want to prune them mechanically." On an adjacent Gala orchard, he added: "They were trained for mechanical pruning and now haven't been pruned by hand for two years."

For this, Checkley favours "window pruning", in which alternate outward-facing branches are pruned in successive years, by changing which of the Fama pruner's five blades are in operation. In training the trees for this "a 'run-through' tree is the way to go", he pointed out. "You want them up to the top wire as soon as possible." But with 3.5m-wide alleys throughout the farm "this is not as intensive as some", he added. The farm is also "a big user" of the growth regulator Regalis, he said. "I would rather have to slow the trees down than speed them up."

Protective spraying is based on the Dutch-based RIMpro decision support system for pest and disease management. But Checkley explained: "We have taken great care to preserve our earwig population, by the timing of spraying and use of earwig-friendly products."

Indeed the farm was one of two looked at in a recent AHDB Horticulture study on earwig-friendly spraying, which revealed it had unusually high earwig numbers. "We used to think they were pests but they are fantastic things. They are voracious eaters and are the only insects that nurture their young," said Checkley. On disease, he added: "Canker is all over the farm and there's nothing we can do, but we still get a crop."

The farm has no plans to increase the area of fruit, he said. "For the 10,000 bins we produce, we need a certain amount of storage, trains, tractors and worker accommodation. To grow more we would need more of all of those and probably another sprayer."

Meanwhile, he added: "We have to keep challenging perceptions. 'We've always done it this way' isn't a good reason to do something."

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