Kent fruit grower achieves contest success

Success in the East Kent Fruit Society (EKFS) orchard competition has followed a disastrous 2007 for John Harper, who manages 39ha of orchards on two farms in Kent.

However, his good fortune has been marred by the death of the farms' owner Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, who was president of the Marden Fruit Show Society.

Tributes to Bruce-Lockhart were made by his son Mark and the farms' agronomy adviser Don Vaughan at a tour of the winning orchards on 19 August by some 60 EKFS members.

Mark Bruce-Lockhart said his father was very proud of his orchards on Court Lodge and Pevington Farms.

The farms had been entered for the competition in 2007 but on 2 June they were hit by a severe hail storm rendering most of their 3,000-bin crop unsuitable for the fresh market. More than 2,000 bins were sold to Fruit Direct for juicing and 800 bins were "salvaged" for fresh outlets - thanks to the efforts of marketing agent Norman Collett, which has marketed the farms' fruit for many years.

This season has seen a complete turnaround of fortunes for Harper. He was first in the competition's culinary class, second in the Cox class and won awards for best orchard hygiene and "most commercial blocks of fruit".

"Since we stopped grading and packing our fruit four years ago we've been concentrating on the management of our trees and this is starting to pay off," he said. "We're sitting on our best crop to date. We did have a little scab, mainly on Gala, but generally our crop is looking very clean. Our fruit goes away in bulk bins and Norman Collett decides where (and how) it's stored, graded and packed."

The improved tree management is exemplified by a 21-year-old 5.6ha Cox/MM106 orchard with 411 trees/ha spaced at 5.5m by 3.65m. It has Golden Delicious pollinators. Vaughan said the orchard, which had previously been over-vigorous and prone to biennial cropping, has taken several years to become more productive. This has happened largely thanks to regular Cultar treatment and summer pruning. The orchard's estimated crop is 65 bins/ha, compared with 46 bins/ha in 2003 and 2004.

One of the farms' most impressive orchards comprises 4.5ha of two-row bed Cox with Egremont Russet pollinators. The trees, which are on M9, were planted in three stages - in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The orchard has 1,957 trees/ha spaced at 5.5m by 1.8m by 0.7m. Its estimated crop of 76 bins/ha is certain to have a very high class I gradeout. Vaughan said: "There is not much frost eye because the farms are high up (on the greensand ridge). As a result, flowering is late and so it missed the (early April) frosts."

The winning Bramley, totalling 11.2ha, was planted from 1978 to 1983. It is on M26 and spaced at 4.6m by 3m to give a tree population of 678/ha. Good vigour control is an important part of the variety's tree management - 6ha receives half-rate Regalis at petal fall followed by 0.3 litre/ha of Cultar in each spray round. The remaining area had half-rate Regalis at petal fall then quarter-rate treatment of the same product at three-week intervals. The efficacy of the treatments was clearly demonstrated by the greater vigour of a row of untreated trees.

Harper explained that he recruits student labour via a Latvian agent for Concordia. This year, all of his student workers are Latvian.

Other competition winners were Alan Firmin (best Cox and orchard of the year), A Parker (best dessert orchard other than Cox), Chandler & Dunn (best young orchard), N Bardsley (best pears), S Dawes (best plums and cherries) and P Mansfield (most commercial orchard).

SANDY BRUCE-LOCKHART

Marden Fruit Show Society president and Conservative politician Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, whose passion for politics was matched only by his passion for top fruit growing, died of cancer on 14 August.

A fruit grower for 40 years, he owned some 121ha in Headcorn, Egerton and Pluckley, Kent. His career in politics stemmed from his love of the county in which he grew his fruit. In 1989 he joined Maidstone Borough Council and went on to lead Kent County Council before joining the Local Government Association. He was also chairman of English Heritage.


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