Three years ago, Hereford grower Clive Richards became the first participant outside the South East to win the national Cherry & Soft Fruit Show's Blue Riband champion cherry trophy in its long history. At last week's 80th show he repeated that achievement, beating 125 other entries, all from Kent - the traditional cherry-growing county.
The event, held in conjunction with the Kent County Show at Detling near Maidstone on 16-18 July, attracted 198 entries in all - some 20 fewer than last year but many more than the previous 10 years. However, the 23 exhibits for the market pack classes were the most that anyone can remember, probably because they involve less time and effort to enter for increasingly hard-pressed growers.
Of the total of 29 exhibitors, Richards was one of the seven from outside Kent. He grows just over 28ha of cherries on his Lower Hope Farms, Ullingswick, some 240m above sea level. With such a late site, his picking season usually starts two to three weeks later than in the South East. This gives him a significant marketing advantage, although most years his fruit is not ripe enough for the show.
In 2007, his champion entry was a 1.8kg chip of Kordia, the top variety for five years running up to 2009. This year that run was broken by Sunburst. He also had class winners with Stella, Lapins and Hertford.
Picking began on Lower Hope Farms on 13 July - compared with the first day or two of July for much of Kent. Farms manager Simon Wells explains that usually the farms' best varieties are Kordia and Regina but they would not have been ready for another three weeks or so.
"We planted our first cherries in 1994 - 1.6ha of Colt - but we didn't seriously get into it until 1999, helped by Doug Worley (a Yalding, Kent grower) who advised us to use Gisela 5 instead of Colt," he explained. "We've now just about got rid of our Colt. Most of our crop is trickle irrigated and protected by Spanish tunnels, Voen or a cover of our own design that has ventilation in the top."
The crop is picked by around 120 eastern Europeans recruited by HOPS Labour Solutions and the farms employ six full-time Polish staff. Estimated production this year is 200 tonnes. It is being sold through Berry Gardens, mostly to Marks & Spencer and the rest to Sainsbury's. The fruit is hydrocooled, sized and polished by New Zealand equipment.
The show committee's new chairmanPaul Kelsey said he was "really delighted" with the level of grower support and the event's new sponsors, Norton Folgate, Berry Gardens and TotalBerry/TotalCherry. The other sponsors are Lambert and Foster, Edward Vinson, Haygrove, Bayer CropScience, Frank P Matthews and Hobbs Parker Property Consultants. Produce Packaging supplied the packaging for the exhibitors.
With thousands of people visiting the show it has always been an excellent shop window for the industry. The show committee recently decided to take this a step further by introducing educational elements - such as a placard for each class printed where appropriate with details of the variety concerned and its origin.
There was also a display of fruiting tabletop strawberries in the show marquee to demonstrate how they are grown and how easy the fruit is to pick.At the 2011 event there will be a series of pictures illustrating how and why strawberries are grown in polytunnels. Meanwhile, the committee is producing a website about the show and the industry it serves.
Richards' achievement was just one of several outstanding performances, including notably that of Brian Piper of Loose, near Maidstone, who has regularly entered champion cherries in the past.
His 10 cherry class wins and numerous second prizes mean that he accumulated the highest points score. Among his first prizes was that for the best cherry market pack for loose fruit - a 5kg cardboard tray of Kordia awarded 93 per cent points.
In three classes his winning entry included a late, large-fruited, black EMR selection coded C90-15 and bred by Ken Tobutt. It is being tested by a few growers before a decision is made on its general release.
The Driscoll everbearer Jubilee continued to reign supreme in the strawberry classes, which says a great deal for its eating quality and appearance. It has been judged the champion strawberry every year since it was first introduced in 2003. This time the exhibit was four one-pound punnets in the any everbearer class entered by Paul Kelsey.
Like his other strawberries, the champion entry was grown in tabletop peat/coir modules in polytunnels. The Dutch tray plants were planted in February and picking began on 5 May. The predicted yield is 1kg per plant - equivalent to 15 tonnes per acre.
Kelsey also won the foreign-bred strawberry class - again with Jubilee - the primocane raspberry class with Maravilla, the blackberry class with Obsidian and most importantly the strawberry and blackberry market pack classes.
His strawberry market pack was a cardboard tray of 18 300g clear plastic-lidded punnets of Jubilee that scored 97 percentage points. These comprised 25/25 for weight, packing, presentation and container, 20/20 for edibility, 13/15 for size, 14/15 for condition and stalk wither and 10/10 for bruise and blemish. The best blackberry market pack was 18 200g lidded punnets of Obsidian in a plastic supermarket crate.
Winner of the raspberry market pack class was Salmans of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, with two plastic crates of 12 220g heat-sealed clear plastic punnets of Maravilla. Best pack cherries was won by AC Hulme of Merton Farm, Canterbury, with a cardboard tray of 10 clear plastic-lidded punnets of Van. Best blueberry market pack was Duke from Faversham, Kent, by grower Edward Vinson, while Martin Fruit Farms' Kordia from Marden, Kent, won the market pack class for organic stone fruit.
Elegance, EMR's new maincrop strawberry variety, which promises to outperform Elsanta, made its first appearance at the show. It was entered by Staffordshire grower New Farm Produce of Elmhurst, Lichfield, in the class for 1.8kg punnets of UK bred varieties and was judged the best soft fruit exhibit. Another special prize, for the entry combining outstanding flavour and appearance, went to AC Hulme of Merton Farm, Canterbury for his 1.8kg chip of Van.
Good cherry year
Don Vaughan, Farm Advisory Services Team's stone fruit specialist and a cherry judge at the show, believes that many cherry crops this year have benefited considerably from the long, cold winter that had well above the average number of chill units - the number of hours the temperature is 7 degsC or below from November to February.
"Of all the years I've been involved in cherry growing, Colt's highest cropping years have always followed high chill unit winters," says Vaughan. "On average, Colt produces a decent crop only once every 10 years or so and so it doesn't compare with Gisela, which is much more consistent. Gisela 5 produces three times more than Colt."
He reckons that virtually all of the cherries planted in recent years have been on Gisela rootstocks, mostly Gisela 5, so it will not be long before the area on Gisela exceeds that on Colt.
"The two or three largest cherry growers in Kent still have a fair proportion of Colt but all are now planting Gisela and as soon as this comes into full cropping I suspect their Colt will go," he suggests.
Another effect of the prolonged winter freeze was to delay flowering by 10 to 14 days, says Vaughan, and there were only a few good pollinating days before the average daytime temperatures were greatly reduced by strong northerly and north-easterly winds. Normally these would have induced significant run-off but "for some reason" - possibly related to the high number of winter chill units - the overall fruit set and retention were pretty good. Most growers had heavy crops, although fruit size of the earlier varieties at least was smaller than usual. The heaviest setting varieties were Summer Sun, Regina and Sweetheart, with Kordia not far behind.
Apart from orchards some 92m or more above sea level, picking began in early July with Merchant on Gisela 5. One drawback of the Gisela stocks is that their fruit tends to ripen earlier than Colt's, says Vaughan.
Tony Redsell, the show's chief steward, recalls that although the weather during flowering "was not that good", fruit set was very good. Indeed, his Skeena overset and Penny carried such a heavy crop that some of its boughs snapped in the high winds during the weeks of the show. Had it been practicable the variety would have benefited from being hand-thinned before the fruit began to colour.
His 10ha crop at Boughton near Canterbury, virtually all on Gisela 5, suffered relatively little run-off - much less than he expected - and hardly any cracking due to rain before the show. He believes that one reason for this is that "the ground was so incredibly dry" that it soaked up much of the rain, thus minimising its uptake by the tree roots. His application of two doses of PreTect also helped to prevent the fruit from cracking.
Redsell has the distinction of being the longest-serving supporter of the show. He began showing in 1958 and during his 52-year career he has won the cherry championship 35 times, including an unbroken run from 1965 to 1994.