Growers' society visits farms to learn about top and soft fruit developments

A summer day trip to another fruit growing area has traditionally been part of the annual programme of the enterprising Essex & Suffolk Fruit Growers' Society (ESFGS) and this year its target area was the Sittingbourne to Faversham fruit-growing corridor of east Kent.

First on the programme was GH Dean & Co on the edge of Sittingbourne - where top fruit grower Oliver Doubleday grows 85ha of Conference pears, along with 16ha of Gala, 10ha of Braeburn and 2ha of Bramley plus 17ha of cherries and 2ha of plums.

The new plantings of Braeburn at Rodmersham Court Farm, using single rows with a post and wire training system at 1.5m x 3.75m, were carrying an excellent crop in their third year with vigour controlled by root pruning.

A trip to Holland four years ago convinced Doubleday that even though his brick earth soil was normally too good for dessert apples, this new system which uses a specially designed root pruner could work for him. He told the visitors that root pruning also improved budding up, that growth regulator Cultar was no longer needed and that the root pruner had paid for itself in the first summer. His experience so far of vigour control was that, with irrigation, timing of root pruning was not critical - otherwise only autumn would be suitable.

At Hempstead Farm, Doubleday was keen to show the group his picking train system bringing in some of the first Conference harvest in the last week of August. Now in its second year, the picking trains sourced from Holland are pulled by 18 Chinese tractors.

"We used to have 57 varieties of tractor on the farm," Doubleday said. "Now any of our seasonal labour can drive these simple little tractors with a two-stage clutch."

He said the advantage of the picking trains is better monitoring of quality - speeding up picking rather than saving in numbers of pickers - and there is an added benefit of ease of picking pollinators as the train can quickly go to the area and bring in the fruit that might have been left in the past.

Winding up their visit at soft fruit grower Alistair Brooks' tunnel crops near Faversham, the group enjoyed sampling an excellent primocane raspberry crop of Driscoll variety Pacifica - which manager Andrew Reeves planted in March this year.

Raspberries are a new enterprise for this farm, which has specialised in strawberries with about 40ha cropping each year. US-origin, bare-rooted plants of Driscoll Maravilla and Pacifica were potted in one-litre pots in a propagation tunnel before planting. The cropping tunnels paid dividends as the crop in prospect was excellent. Also, these varieties come with a proviso that they can only be cropped for four years before replacement - so any early yield can be considered a bonus.

- The grower membership of ESFGS may have contracted over the years but society events are always well-supported, and the annual foreign trip to see fruit growing around the world is a firm favourite. A trip to Chile next February has been arranged. Anyone interested in joining the group should contact secretary Kevin Workman on 01394 385302.

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