Less intense orchard produces top yields

Gala and Bramley orchards on a Kent farm are producing some of the country's top yields despite being established at a relatively low cost.

The orchards prove that the heavy investment usually undertaken for the increasingly popular intensive planting systems is not always necessary for generating the highest returns.

Hadlow Place Farm was the venue for the British Independent Fruit Growers' Association spring walk on 21 April. The 81ha of apples and pears are owned by the Teacher family and managed by Velcourt's Nigel Gibb. The other apple varieties grown are Kanzi and Cox pollinators for the Gala at one-in-eight.

He explained that the zig-zag double-row, staked Gala, spaced at 2m by 1.5m with 5.5m between the double row centres, has a tree population of 1,705/ha. This compares with 2,500-3,000/ha for intensive orchards, which are often supported by wire trellis work.

The Bramleys, also supported by individual tree stakes, are spaced at 3m by 4.8m to give a tree population of 625/ha. The Gala orchards' relatively low tree population means they cost only around £7,000/ha to plant compared with £18,000 to £20,000 for intensive orchards on wire trellis work.

This winter, 5ha of Gala and 7ha of Bramleys were planted - more than average because none were planted the previous winter. Yields of the 26ha of Gala were exceptionally high, with an average of 55t/ha being achieved in 2009.

"I don't think an intensive trellis system would do any better," said Gibb. Around 39ha of Bramleys also performed well, with the younger orchards achieving 50t/ha and the older ones 30t/ha. The 4.5ha of Kanzi were planted in 2006-07. The older block produced 20t/ha last year and the younger 15t/ha.

"Our soil is a very strong grade I brickearth so an M9 will grow like an M26," he reckoned. "Our tree density is a lot less than usual because the trees fill their space easily and quickly and the surface area covered by our two-row beds exceeds that of the alley width."

Gala "always makes money" but it is a commodity variety so Gibb decided to introduce the premium quality club variety Kanzi. It is stored, graded, packed and marketed by Adrian Scripps, the variety's UK licence holder. He said he hopes it will generate a good return.

"It looks as if we've gone the right way because its price differential was substantial this year," he added. "It made a good premium over Gala. It's a nice, prolific, showy variety and its area is big enough to make it worthwhile."

He said Kanzi has the added advantage of picking a week or so after Gala, whose 3,500-4,000 bins are a lot to harvest in the variety's two-week window. Unlike many growers he has not planted any later varieties like Braeburn because "its return is not that brilliant and our pickers have had enough by mid October".

The Bramley and Gala trees are usually picked more than three times. The first picks go to Tesco, graded and packed by Adrian Scripps. The rest of the crop is sold for peeling, mostly to Fourayes, whose factory at Bicknor near Sittingbourne, Kent, processes around 11,000 tons of the variety a year. It stores about 1,000 bins. Very little is of low enough quality for juice.

The farm has 6,000 bins of cold and controlled atmosphere stores that accommodate about two-thirds of its crop. The rest is sold at harvest including the 1,000 bins of Bramleys that are stored by Fourayes.

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