Quality fruit production reaps rewards

Alan Firmin's dedication to improving its fruit reflects its confidence in the industry.

Investment: picking trains have been introduced on the Alan Firmin farm. Image: Alan Firmin
Investment: picking trains have been introduced on the Alan Firmin farm. Image: Alan Firmin

Brian Tompsett, manager of Alan Firmin's award-winning top fruit business, admits the recession has been a case of "one step forward and two steps back" for growers.

He says it hit the industry at a time when many multiples were finally beginning to listen to growers' needs by giving greater regard to ethical issues such as provenance and producers' returns.

"Before the current economic climate, the industry was starting to look quite positive," he says. "Now it's gone back to price as supermarkets are stepping up the competition, which is a shame."

But despite admitting that the industry is having a rough patch, Tompsett is refreshingly upbeat about the future. "I think that once we get through this difficult time, ethics will come to the fore again."

This is not surprising, as Alan Firmin's top fruit business, which currently farms some 72ha of top fruit near Maidstone, Kent, is thriving.

Tompsett joined the 91-year-old family-owned firm in 1999 - then as assistant top and soft fruit manager - to help directors Paul, Ian and Michael Firmin and Paul Denyer implement major improvements to attain their goal of "picking and storing only class 1 fruit".

This aim has now been achieved as the high-quality top fruit produced on the farm has earned Alan Firmin this year's Grower of the Year - Edibles and Top Fruit Grower of the Year awards.

"We have a reputation among our customers for having some of the best fruit that goes through the packhouses," says Tompsett, who has tended to orchards in Kent for over 40 years.

New planting

Among the long list of improvements carried out over the past few years has been the £350,000 investment in new plantings of Braeburn, Russet, Conference, Cameo and Rubens.

"When I joined in 1999, we had 320 acres (129ha). But there were a lot of orchards that were not productive. So we grubbed a lot of the fruit and brought the orchards down to 180 acres (73ha) and planted new high-yielding, high grade-out varieties."

A new Rubens orchard was planted last spring when its marketer Norman Collett gained the rights to plant the variety. The fruit has so far been a hit with customers.

"The quality is absolutely amazing and it seems to store very well," says Tompsett, who was fruit manager at Rickards Farm in Canterbury for 31 years before joining Alan Firmin. "The flavour and the texture are fantastic."

As some of the orchards are susceptible to frost and disease, the risk to the plants was reduced by growing a wider range of varieties on three different sites.

Other improvements saw 6ha of Braeburn retrofitted last year with support wires to help maintain branches' vigour - an improvement that will also be made to the new plantings of Cameo and Rubens.

These investments are already being acknowledged, as the farm's high yields of class 1 fruit are enjoying success in orchard competitions.

Its six-year-old Cox orchard was last year deemed top orchard in the East Kent Fruit Society (EKFS) orchard competition and overall best farm in the Paddock Wood Spraying and Orchard Management Competition.

Alan Firmin also won last year's Tesco Top Fruit Grower of the Year and the Tesco Global Fruit Grower Award.

"The success the company is currently experiencing is very much down to team effort," says Tompsett, who has five full-time staff members.

Last year saw the production of more than 2,000 tonnes of fruit. Some 32 per cent of its produce is Cox, 28 per cent is Bramley, 10 per cent is Conference pear, 10 per cent is Russet, nine per cent is Braeburn, six per cent Rubens and four per cent is Cameo.

During the picking season, the team relies on the support of 100 temporary workers - including EU students who are employed through Concordia.

Picking trains

Tompsett reveals that the seasonal team has achieved consistently high grade-outs since the introduction of another investment on the farm - picking trains.

Tompsett frequently travels to the Continent to learn about new techniques and growing systems. He saw trains in use in Belgium and Holland before buying them for the farm from the Farm Advisory Services Team (FAST).

Each train is made up of a series of large picking bins on trolleys and is pulled around the farm by tractor.

"We have had picking trains for three seasons now. We bought six trains of five trolleys in the first season and another two trains the second year.

"And we have bought three more for this year," Tompsett says.

Worth £22,000, the new systems enable workers to pick more fruit in one go than they would if they were using traditional picking bins - provided that they stay motivated.

"One of the downsides of picking trolleys is that people are not as motivated as if they were picking their own bin, as they do it in pairs. If there are some slow ones in the team, it slows the average down to the slowest speed.

"Halfway through the first season, I realised I had to get production up, so - on top of a quantity bonus - I paid them a quality bonus. Someone takes samples from the partly full bin and the fruit is analysed. There's an opportunity there to make good money if they pick high quality and fast."

Embracing change

Some £60,000 has also been spent on the students' living conditions in the past three years, with a new sewerage treatment plant, two larger shower blocks and a drying room installed on the caravan site.

Tompsett adds that, although many growers struggled to get enough pickers last year, Alan Firmin managed to get the required numbers because it changed its cropping.

"Our requirements went down because we stopped growing strawberries, so we used our surplus staff.

"My strawberry manager left me and our neighbour offered to purchase the strawberry business. We said 'thank you very much', as we decided it was time to move on," he says.

The move to cease strawberry growing on the farm to better focus on the orchards shows Alan Firmin's willingness to embrace change.

The farm's new orchards and picking techniques are also proof of this attitude - as was the instalment of its state-of-the-art controlled atmosphere (CA) storage facility four years ago, to help the business cope with its increased tonnage. The facility is one of the first French ethylene scrubbing systems, made by Absoger, to be used in the UK.

It works by burning off the ethylene in the air with a heater before filtering air without ethylene molecules back into the room - keeping the fruit fresher for longer.

"We went out to France to see it in action," says Tompsett.

The system on the farm is now made up of four 100-tonne chambers and a chilled 200-tonne corridor area built inside the existing coldstore building - giving Alan Firmin 1,700 tonnes of CA and 200 tonnes of chilled storage.

This, coupled with extensive use of Smart Fresh, has enabled the company to completely eliminate the need for any post-harvest drenching.

"It's a big plus for the customers. We haven't done any drenching for seven years now. I think it does more harm than good, as there's not one drench that controls all of the different storage rots," Tomsett says.

Alan Firmin is keen to try out new technologies - so much so that it regularly takes part in research trials to find ways of improving storage and growing techniques.

Tomsett says: "We are not getting funded by the Government now - so if you don't do research on the farm, it does not get done. We have all grown up with a lot of research being funded by the Government and it's just gradually been reduced.

"It's disappointing that they do not back us. It's short-sighted and just allows work to be done elsewhere."

Research trials

Alan Firmin has taken part in extensive trials led by East Malling Research's David Johnston, for example, to determine what is causing diffuse browning disorder or "boggy bank".

Tompsett says: "Over the past few years, we have been running very comprehensive trials trying to determine what's causing it and when.

"Prior to the trials we had been getting it really badly - so bad that we had to cancel an order of Cox trees. We soon found that the triazole group of pesticides were triggering it."

Alan Firmin's dedication to improving the quality of its top fruit - both on the field and in its stores - reflects its confidence in the future of the "viable" top fruit industry where new varieties such as Rubens show a lot of opportunities for growers.

"When I go to events like the Kent County Show, the majority of people I meet are mainly talking about local sourcing. They like to know that the fruit is grown locally and to a high standard," says Tompsett.

"There's a market out there for home grown produce. With the right support, we are all capable of growing more than we do."

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