Interview - Jo Britcher, owner, Little Court Lodge Farm

Having taken over her father's farm at the age of 18, Jo Britcher has maintained her independence by not joining a farm assurance scheme - preferring to supply fruit to wholesalers than supermarkets.

Britcher's life underwent an unexpected change of direction in 1973 when her father Robert died, leaving her to run Little Court Lodge Farm at East Farleigh, near Maidstone, Kent - with no previous experience of the job.

She was initially helped by the recently retired farm bailiff Vic Moore, but unfortunately he died a little later. But the fact that the farm, cropped with soft fruit and salads at the time, extends to only 6ha meant that she was able to do the routine work herself, requiring help at harvest time.

Her education did not help with the practicalities of her new role. In 1970 she had taken a farm secretarial course at Lincolnshire Farm Institute (now the University of Lincoln School of Agriculture). She then worked for a while at an art college in Bromley, Kent.

Britcher's father had a wholesale business in London's Borough Market, as well as running Little Court Lodge and two other farms nearby, which he sold in the 1950s and 1960s. He was one of the biggest mushroom growers in the UK, using an eight-kiln oasthouse.

The farm, on soil derived from Kentish ragstone, now has about 4ha of semi-intensive apples, mainly Cox with smaller areas of Braeburn, Egremont Russet, Gala and Jonagold. The rest of the farm is cropped with raspberries (Glen Ample, Octavia, Polka and Himbotop), blackberries (Koraka Black, Loch Tay and Chester), Victoria plum, Oulins greengage and quince.

Why so many crops? "Variety is the spice of life," Britcher says. "They also make life more interesting and wholesalers like little bits of things ... it's easier for them to sell small lots than big ones."

Her fruit is generally of high-enough quality to satisfy the most discriminating supermarket. But she prefers to send all of her produce to wholesalers.

If supplied with top-class produce, wholesalers can provide as good a net return as the multiples - with much less hassle for growers, lower packaging and labelling costs and no insistence that their suppliers belong to a farm assurance scheme.

Britcher admits she has always had "good feelings" about wholesalers because her father was a grower/salesman. She maintains that it is in wholesalers' best interests, as well as her own, to get good prices.

Most of her apples are sold by Western International Market wholesaler Addey & Son and the rest through Norman Collett, which supplies wholesalers countrywide as well as a number of supermarkets, including Tesco. The soft fruit goes to French Garden at Covent Garden Market.

"The plums also go to Addey but they won't get any this season because the crop was badly frosted," says Britcher, whose farm last month hosted the British Independent Fruit Growers' Association (BIFGA) annual general meeting. "What few plums there are will be sold at the farm gate. There are quite a few frost licks on the apples but the June drop has thinned them quite nicely - although we'll still have to hand-thin the Gala."

For picking she employs five eastern European students through Concordia and several local people who also help with grading and packing. The apples go into two 50-tonne CA stores and are graded on a small Greefa machine.

Norman Collett technical director Nigel Jenner, who advises Britcher, says her fruit generally is of a very high quality and so commands premium prices. Although her crops would easily reach Assured Produce standards, she is not interested in becoming farm assured.

In 1984, Britcher purchased a 6.9ha orchard about 0.8km away and grubbed and replanted it with Cox/MM106 and pollinators on M26. Although she had help pruning the orchard, last year she rented it out "because it was becoming a bit too much" for her to handle.

The biggest setback Britcher has suffered during her 35-year farming career came in 1987, when fire destroyed the farm's oasthouse. "It was our only building and contained everything."

She has some sidelines in addition to her main business. The biggest is the annual production of 2,000 to 3,000 bottles of juice, the fruit being pressed and bottled by Biddenden Vineyards.

She is also involved in asparagus and mistletoe production, both growing originally from seed deposited by birds. The asparagus grows in the herbicide-treated strips beneath some of the trees and the mistletoe on some Gala trees.

"The more you cut asparagus the stronger it gets, but we do have to go round in early September cutting the fern because because it covers up (some of) the apples," Britcher says. "We can't kill it because it's resistant to the herbicides we use."

All three products are sold to farm shops and in farmers' markets. In addition, the juice and the asparagus are sold at the farm gate.

CV

1970: Farm secretary diploma at Lincolnshire Farm Institute (now the University of Lincoln School of Agriculture)

1973: Takes over Little Court Lodge Farm at the age of 18

1984: Purchases, grubs and replants nearby 6.9ha orchard

1987: Suffers serious setback when the farm's only building, an eight-kiln oasthouse, burns down

2008: Hosts BIFGA annual general meeting and orchard walk.


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