Top fruit: state of the industry

British fruit has come back from the brink in recent years and work is ongoing to make the industry stronger still, say Gavin McEwan and Rachel Anderson.

Orchards: new layouts are giving greater yields and more consistent colour as well as creating potential for mechanisation - image: Tobias von der Harr
Orchards: new layouts are giving greater yields and more consistent colour as well as creating potential for mechanisation - image: Tobias von der Harr

The news that this season’s British apple crop will be the largest in 30 years highlights the industry’s remarkable turnaround. But this is still a work in progress, according to leading industry figures.

"Fifteen years ago, people doubted we would even still be here today," says English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow. "We have made huge progress in making shoppers aware of British fruit and getting them to look for the Union Jack, even in pears. Retailers, even the discounters, are aware that it’s in their interest to ensure they stock English apples."

This season’s crop is forecast to be around 160,000 tonnes, but harvest will be up to two weeks later than last year, he adds. "We had no early frosts and reasonable weather in summer.

There was concern at the end of July about the heat and lack of rain, but August was wet with cool night temperatures giving good colour. That has impacted growth so fruit size will be average. But eating quality looks extremely good, with crunchy, juicy, flavoursome fruit."

Hard work and high costs

National Fruit Show chairman and Partners in Produce founder Sarah Calcutt says: "It’s a good crop this year but because of the changeable weather people have had to work really hard and there are high costs associated with that. Everyone has thinned, pruned and irrigated, for instance, because there’s been a high risk of mildew and canker. Those who irrigated during the long dry period will come out much better."

Putting the wider context, Barlow adds: "The European harvest is likely to be down around 10 per cent overall. There isn’t the panic that there was last year in the wake of the Russian trade ban — suppliers have had a year now to find other routes to market. Stocks of concentrate are also lower, which has strengthened prices. In the UK the strength of the pound is unhelpful, as European prices do influence prices here. We already have intense competition between the major retailers and the hard discounters, though we should recognise the support that retailers gave to English growers last year, paying more than they could have paid for European fruit.

However, the prices are still inadequate to enable the continued investment that the industry needs to grow."

Lack of returns to growers have already hit this season’s Bramley production, which is expected to be down around 20 per cent. "There has been extensive grubbing," says Barlow. "This should serve as a warning to the rest of the industry. If the incentives aren’t there, growers will give their land over to something else, like solar farms."

Part of the changing fortunes of the industry are down to a switch to higher-yielding more manageable varieties in line with modern tastes, he adds. "The industry has been transformed by varieties such as Gala, which only recently overtook Cox and now yields twice as much.

There has been a dramatic increase in volumes of new varieties this year, up 45 per cent on 2014."

Calcutt says Opal and Zari are among the early varieties already enjoying a successful season. Two new late Cameo sports, Cauflight and Caured, are being planted with a view to extending the UK season at the other end.

Meanwhile, new hedgerow layouts are giving much greater yields and more consistent colour, Barlow explains, adding that such formats open up the possibility of greater orchard mechanisation, which will only gain impetus from the Government’s Living Wage proposals.

"The amount of hand work will be reduced in thinning and pruning, though it won’t be entirely replaced."

Recently commercialised

GPS-linked camera systems will increasingly monitor the crop while it is still in the orchard, potentially allowing harvesting too to be automated, he suggests. "The rate of progress is dramatic."

Calcutt adds: "Most growers are using online weather-monitoring systems from companies such as Agrovista, Hutchinsons and Agrii." Some of these firms are even sharing data. "It’s happening because it has to. There’s so little left in the pest-control arsenal that growers have to be very careful with when and how they apply their crop-protection products. These systems give you an early warning. You don’t do a preventive treatment until you know you need to."

"Everyone who is putting in a new orchard has some form of water and fertigation management put in, particularly if they are looking at a crop such as pears," she adds. "Given the kind of investment you need for pears, no one is not going to invest in water management."

Likewise in packhouses, Barlow explains: "Barcoded bins of fruit are now automatically passed through the system, which includes infrared beams to detect internal defects and cameras to monitor the outer appearance of apples — size, colour and irregularities. In 10 years’ time we will see packhouses and stores that are fully automated, even down to driverless fork lift trucks."

Improvements to packaging

Packaging is also seeing improvements, with new sleeve packs "giving a very clear view of the fruit, making it a much more attractive product", says Barlow. "Overall, the application of technology has been phenomenal. For a period we were behind the rest of the world, but now in some areas we are leading it."

Another area where technology is having a significant impact is in fruit stores, so much so that year-round storage of British fruit is becoming a possibility, says Calcutt. "The industry is entering the second year of Innovate UK-funded research in dynamic controlled atmosphere.

Companies like Kent-based top-fruit grower AC Goatham have been investing in it as part of a consortium that includes Avalon [formerly Norman Collett] and Sainsbury’s that is working on the Safepod technology. It’s marching ahead of its competitors and is going to give us proper seasonal expansion in efficient, economically viable storage. The quality of the fruit that’s coming out is very good."

Getting this hi-tech message across to the public "is important in terms of attracting new entrants", Barlow points out. "The reports I get back are that people have no idea of the changes that the industry has undergone, or of the opportunities that are there. We have made JobCentrePlus teams aware of what work is available, while Open Farm Sunday has helped get people onto farms." At the other end of the industry, he adds: "There are plenty of people in the industry earning six-figure salaries."

Another potential development over the coming years is the expansion of exports, he suggests. "Exports of other agricultural products have increased dramatically in recent years. British apples have a reputation for quality and consistency.

"We are confident that India will be open to British exports before the end of this season and are looking at other markets too, though we would like to actually begin when the pound is less strong. It’s not something we need to do but that time will come and we want to make sure we have done the groundwork. Then it will be up to individual marketers to establish their own relationships."

While supplying a greater share of the home market will remain the industry’s chief goal, "it’s better not to have all your eggs in one basket," he adds. Defra secretary Liz Truss has also been "incredibly supportive" of the English industry in areas such as public procurement, says Barlow. "The attitude of Government on this has changed completely from 20 years ago. They now want greater food security."

Currently UK growers supply 40 per cent of the country’s apples, but this could hit 55 per cent within 10 years, Barlow insists. "That’s achievable if the returns to growers will sustain it."

Grower view: Peter Checkley, Brodwater Farm (Howard Chapman), Kent

"Prices only ever go in one direction and that’s downwards. The problem is that costs go up and we are faced with ever more problems, such as the Living Wage. I’ve recorded our returns over the last 10 years and the trend line shows it’s going downwards.

"But the interesting thing is, if you superimpose the pound-to-euro exchange rate over it, it would track the trend line very clearly. Our best years were 2011-12, when the pound
was very weak against the euro. We were down to almost a parity at one point, whereas we are up at about €1.40 at the moment.

"That has a massive affect because, understandably, supermarkets compare what they can buy from the UK with what they get when they buy from Europe. Do the public really want to
buy English? While most people say yes, the sales figures do not necessarily reflect that.

"That said, being able to store year-round is really important. Some people want to buy English apples and are disappointed if they can’t find them — they want a year-round supply if they can get it.

"For the first time this year, I have started to use RIMpro from Hutchinsons in the orchard via my mobile phone. It will tell me whether we had a frost last night or if there is likely to be a big spore release for apple scab. If so, it’s important that we can react to that information. You have to change your farming techniques to adapt to the information that you are getting.

"The golden egg for fruit growing is a mechanical harvesting machine. Right now, although we prune, spray and thin mechanically, you still have to get 80 people to pick your fruit."

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