This year's Fruit Focus promises a fantastic mix of attractions to keep visitors busy. Apart from over 90 trade stands, including numerous newcomers, there are several events such as two seminar programmes addressing topics of huge importance to growers and wine producers.
The same applies to the East Malling Research farm tours, during which researchers will discuss their work on improving the water use efficiency and fruit quality of strawberries, investigations into the drought tolerance of strawberries and the effect of ground cover on pest predators in orchards.
For the first time, the show will also include crop trials from manufacturers and research bodies to help visitors improve yields, quality and performance.
Another novel feature will be a machinery competition. The winner of this will be entered for the Technical Product of the Year award at the Grower of the Year Awards 2009, organised by Horticulture Week and Grower.
There will also be live machinery demonstrations - an innovation introduced to the show last year - but with added realism provided by strawberries and apple trees planted in the demonstration area.
Two speakers at the NFU/HSBC Fruit Forum will talk about the vital subject of the seasonal labour shortage. They are well-qualified to do so because both have considerable experience of employing large numbers of seasonal workers.
KG Growers chairman Marion Regan runs Hugh Lowe Farms' 130ha soft fruit business in Mereworth, Kent, and employs and houses some 400 pickers at peak season. She will present a practical grower's perspective of the problem based on her own experience.
She says: "The decline in picker numbers has reduced our options for attracting the best pickers and being able to match the people who want to pick with the work available.
"Before, we had a very good system that meant people who wanted to pick were able to pick. But now we've got fewer options because of the Government's misguided thinking that this is a migrant worker problem when, in fact, our workers are seasonal. They are often students and people who are prepared to travel and return home after completing their work."
Robert Mitchell, the second speaker on the subject, has been a director of Concordia for 15 years and its chairman for 10. He has employed around 100 Concordia-recruited workers each season for the past 20 years or so.
Mitchell expects to be hit as hard as any grower by the shortfall of seasonal agricultural workers' scheme (SAWS) workers for picking the 180ha of apples and pears - mainly Bramley's Seedling, Egremont Russet and Conference - on the farm near Sevenoaks, Kent, that he runs with his brother Ian. The business was established by their grandfather about 100 years ago.
"I'm very concerned that we'll fall short of the labour we require," he says. "We have a very short picking window - only about eight weeks - so there's not a lot of margin for error."
Another NFU/HSBC Fruit Forum speaker is Andrew Tinsley, HDC's technical and communications manager for tree fruits and mushrooms. He will explain how growers' levy money is spent, starting with saying how much of the HDC's total income each sector gets and then going into more detail about expenditure on soft and top fruit.
He is aware that there's "some unhappiness" about changes in how the levy for the apple and pear sector is raised and will go into the reasons for this move, which is aimed at bringing the sector in line with others.
In the same forum, Cedric Porter - who runs consultancy Supply Intelligence - will have some encouraging things to say about the fruit industry. Although it's a time of uncertainty for many consumers, he believes that the fruit sector "will weather the storm quite well" - thanks largely to the healthy-eating message and the provenance and food-miles factors.
"There's still a lot of money around but the high fuel prices may mean that more people will holiday in this country and that could result in more fruit consumption," he says. "There may also be some opportunity to sell fruit for home jam-making and processing using less-than-perfect fruit packaged (and sold) for these purposes."
Vines to Wines
Wine producers will certainly be presented with enough information in the Vines to Wines seminar to keep them happy. Very few of those involved in the industry have such diverse experience as one of the speakers, Stephen Skelton, who will be talking about the UK wine market.
His interest in viticulture dates back to the early 1970s. It led to his studying the subject at a wine school in Germany and working at a vineyard there. After two years he returned to the UK and planted nearly 2.5ha of wine grapes on a farm at Small Hythe near Tenterden, Kent, purchased by his father-in-law who owned a large estate in the area.
The farm was later sold and his career has since encompassed virtually all aspects of wine growing, production and sales, including: running a large vineyard at Lamberhurst, Kent for three years; managing a wine merchant in London for four years; lecturing; judging; contract wine production; and writing books on the subject.
However, Skelton's main occupation is viticulture consultancy, which mainly involves advising those wanting to establish new vineyards, particularly for the production of sparkling wine.
"I've become pretty busy doing this over the past few years," he says. "Since 2003 there's been a lot more interest planting vineyards and wine production.
"The best English wines are very good but unfortunately there are a lot that aren't very good. Many people who come into the industry don't know very much about viticulture. They think they can learn on the job ... some can and some can't. The worst thing is to try and then discover you've made a mistake."
Another Vines to Wines forum speaker, Geoffrey Taylor, is also a leader in his field. He will be talking about the UK accreditation process for wine, along with wine quality in general - which, he says, is improving.
Accreditation to the ISO and BRC standards is necessary to ensure that the wine reaching consumers is of an assured quality, he says. But achieving those standards is "quite challenging".
Taylor has more than 30 years' experience in the analysis, production and quality assessment in the alcoholic drinks trade. In 1988 he founded Corkwise, a wine-testing laboratory, which he continues to run.
Around the stands
Berry Gardens - as Kentish Garden Marketing (until 2007) - has had a stand at Fruit Focus every year since 1996. It's the company's major event of the year, its large marquee being an essential destination for hundreds of visitors.
"The show comes in the middle of the UK's berry season and is a good showcase, at which we meet all of our growers, our customers and others," says Berry Gardens Holdings group managing director Nicholas Marston. The company was established through the merging in February 2007 of the marketing and R&D interests of KG Growers, Spanish marketing company Alconeras and Driscoll Strawberry Associates, based in California.
Berry Gardens' 75 growers produce 40 to 45 per cent of the UK's soft fruit crop, handled by its 45 or so packhouses. Although during its early years, the members of the original Kentish Garden group all farmed in Kent, they are now spread countrywide with some 30 per cent in the South East, 30 per cent in the West Midlands, 25 per cent in Scotland and 15 per cent in East Anglia.
While Elsanta has been the company's main variety for many years, at one time accounting for 80 per cent of its strawberry output, the variety's production is declining in competition with Driscoll varieties, notably Jubilee, that last year accounted for 37 per cent of the company's increasing everbearer crop.
Another major exhibitor is specialist English fruit marketer Norman Collett, which handles nearly 30 per cent of the home apple and pear crop and 20 to 25 per cent of the plums and cherries. The company has had a stand at the show since 2001.
The company's technical manager Sarah Calcutt says Fruit Focus offers an ideal setting for "catching up with people and speaking to a wide cross-section of those involved in the industry".
She adds: "Growers attend to get up to date with what's going on in the industry - and our marquee allows them to do that in comfort."
Norman Collett was established just over 30 years ago to act as marketing agent for the newly formed Mid Kent Growers and Spymark Growers groups. It now markets the output of 48 group members and numerous independent growers. The fruit is graded and packed by eight packhouses.
In 2006 the company moved into purpose-designed premises at Paddock Wood, Kent, spacious enough to allow for its continued expansion. Calcutt's remit includes responsibility for helping to develop the business as well as undertaking communications, presentations and the auditing of operations.
The show has attracted numerous new exhibitors, including Concordia, which will be using its presence as a goodwill PR exercise and to learn more from growers about the problems being caused by the government-induced shortfall of SAWS labour.
The Farm Advisory Services Team (FAST) has not exhibited at Fruit Focus for some time but will this year, largely because of its changed circumstances. Its recent move from Sheldwich in Faversham, Kent, to the nearby Brogdale Farm means it has a lot of extra room for trials and laboratory services that will enable it to increase its grower clientele. Its presence at the show will mean it can talk to a large number of existing and potential clients in a short time.
Training and commercial development co-ordinator Sheenagh Levett says: "All growers probably know about us but many may believe that we only do pest and disease monitoring and provide advice on their control. But that's far from the case.
"We cover every aspect of production for top, stone and soft fruit and have advisers in the West Midlands and Scotland (as well as the South East). Our basic aim is to help growers improve their bottom-line profits."
New joint-venture company DLV Plant UK will introduce itself to growers at Fruit Focus. It brings together consultancy Soft Fruit Solutions (SFS) and DLV, the Dutch equivalent of ADAS.
Dennis Wilson, who established SFS in 1999, says: "We were quite well-known within our niche but were so busy that we did not feel the need to exhibit. However, with the launch of a much bigger company we want to spread our name more widely."
DLV Plant provides advisory services and support for soft fruit growers, although in the longer term it plans to expand into other produce sectors including top fruit.
"There will be a lot of knowledge exchange between ourselves and the Dutch advisers, who have an enormous amount of technical information," Wilson says.
Packaging sales and development company Sirane is making its debut appearance at the show to tell growers about its new pad for soft and stone fruit punnets. Unlike the normal bubble pad, Sirane's pad is compostable, absorbent and comes in more or less any size or colour growers require, thus improving the fruit's presentation.
Sales executive Sandra Evans says: "It took us three years to develop our new pad and get all the right accreditation and certification for it. One of its important advantages is that it absorbs the juice that the fruit can produce, particularly in the case of fruit-on-the-go, and reduces condensation."
She says that Fruit Focus will provide a very good opportunity to make more contact with growers - which is not possible at the food-packaging exhibitions the company normally attends.
The Environment Agency is exhibiting for the first time because it wants to raise its profile among fruit growers, with whom it has tended to have less contact than it has with other sectors of farming.
Senior environmental officer Ben Tragett says: "We're looking to raise growers' awareness of issues like waste disposal, pollution prevention and Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs).
"We can meet a lot of growers in a short time (at Fruit Focus) in a non-regulatory situation. Among the more important talking points will be the recent changes in the waste disposal regulations and the proposed changes to the NVZ rules. These might be a bit stricter and apply to new areas."
Another first-time exhibitor is Hadlow College, which now has a policy of re-engaging with the fresh produce sector, says business and workforce development manager Sally Flanagan. "We want to reach a larger audience to tell them about the wide-ranging services we offer - including short legislative courses and courses on spraying, chainsaw use and health and safety issues."
EMR FARM TOURS
Cutting-edge technology will be explained by three researchers during the East Malling Research (EMR) farm tours.
Arguably the most fundamental work is being undertaken by University of Leeds PhD student Nada Surbanovski. She is using strawberry plants to study aquaporins, a relatively new aspect of plant-water relationships. Aquaporins are the proteins in cell membranes that conduct water. They can be likened to taps that allow water to flow into cells depending on factors such as soil moisture level and weather conditions, she says.
"I'm elucidating how aquaporins work and then determining how to control them (to the benefit of plant growth) and ultimately discover how plants react to drought, and prevent the overuse of water (by growers)."
Improving water use efficiency and fruit quality in strawberries is the subject of the second EMR farm tour demonstration, organised by Dr Mark Else. He and two others will explain their approaches to irrigation scheduling to achieve the desired results.
He will be using an Evaposensor to determine plants' daily water use. Then a proportion of this - rather than all of it - is applied to the crop with the aim of improving fruit yield, firmness, shelf life and flavour components comprising volatiles, sugars and acids.
Water management specialist Peter White will be talking about irrigation scheduling based on the soil moisture readings produced by the EnviroSCAN.
The third contributor, Martin Wood of Earthcare Environmental, will explain the closed-loop system. This uses echo probes in the crop to measure soil moisture content - when a threshold is reached the irrigation system is automatically triggered.
"If we can apply the right amount of water we hope to avoid producing fruit with a high water content that dilutes the flavour components," says Else. "Someone from Marks & Spencer will be doing the taste tests."
On the same tour Dr Jean Fitzgerald will be talking about her work, the results of which will be of benefit to top fruit growers. Its aim is to increase the number of ground-dwelling pest predators like carabid beetles and earwigs through using types of ground cover along the tree rows that encourage their presence.
In this study, being carried out in a young organic apple orchard, the types of ground cover being compared are knapweed, clover, an organic mulch and bare soil. Knapweed was chosen because of its upright growth and clover because it is ground hugging.
Where: East Malling Research, East Malling, Kent
When: Wednesday 23 July
Time: 9am to 4pm
Visitor registration and stand bookings: See www.fruitfocus.co.uk
By rail: The nearest station is East Malling (call National Rail Enquiries on 08457 484950)
By road: For directions see www.fruitfocus.co.uk
Parking: Car parking is free.