Some growers feared that as much as 70 or 80% of their crop had been lost to the frost, which was followed by a very hot period in June and July. After such a precarious growing period, it is unsurprising that there has been a feeling of relief among growers as they finally begin to harvest their crops.
As AC Goatham & Son technical director Nigel Stewart said following the East Kent Fruit Society's (EKFS) walk around the Kent-based top-fruit firm’s award-winning Shrubbery Farm: "2017 has been a very challenging year for growers with the late, hard frosts in the spring followed by the very long dry spell and then the recent heavy rain, which brings with it the threat of hail. We are beginning harvesting today (16 August) at Griffins Farm and we will all be relieved to get this year’s crop into cold stores and then out directly to customers."
The firm’s commercial director Carol Ford added: "Like all growers we now just want to get the harvest under way and the fruit safely into storage or out to customers before any other weather extremes come along."
Grower James Smith of Kent-based Loddington Farm says: "It’s not going to take very long [to harvest our crops.] It’s quite an early season, so we’ll start early and finish early. Some farms have got a full crop. I am going to produce about 60% of a full crop because of the spring frost. It’s bad. Like most people, I could have done with a good year this year."
As growers’ harvesting got underway, the World Apple & Pear Association (WAPA) confirmed at its Prognosfruit conference in Lleida, Spain, that apple production is indeed set to be 25% down this year in the UK. Moreover, at 9.34 million tonnes, the EU apple crop is forecast to be 21% lower than last year and the smallest in the past decade.
The association estimates pear production at 2.15 million tonnes – 1% lower than last year and 8% short of the 2014-16 average. The pear crop is also the second smallest in the past 10 years.
But despite initial fears that there could be a shortage of top fruit this year, WAPA notes "careful optimism" among the industry. Its report states: "The figures released at Prognosfruit leave room for careful optimism for the coming season, with a more balanced situation between supply and demand after the last three years, which registered in particular for apples, a peak crop.
"More specifically about the EU apple market, it is to be reminded that, over the last years, the market suffered the consequences of the Russian embargo and were more recently confronted by lower export volumes to North African markets. The new crop could therefore lead to a better balance of the supply. It is forecasted that ca 6.2 million tonnes will be moving on the fresh market and 3.2 million tonnes for processing."
Despite their lower yields, some English growers are certainly feeling the sense of "careful optimism" referred to by WAPA. Largely, this is because:
- The quality and size of their fruit is good this year.
- They have farms in several different locations so this year’s patchy frost spells did not reach each and every one of their farms.
- Investment in the latest agronomy and long-term storage techniques has enabled them to make their businesses as healthy and profitable as possible.
AC Goatham's Ford says: "We are lucky in the sense that we haven’t suffered any more than other growers in the region and thankfully our growing systems and orchard locations have the ability to cope with what we have seen this year. The quality of the crop is universally looking good across all varieties."
AC Goatham’s Shrubbery Farm in Eastry near Dover won several awards in this year’s EKFS annual top-fruit competition. These included class B dessert — Gala, best orchard over 1,000 trees/acre and pear for its V-System.
During this month’s walk around the award-winning farm – one of 26 managed by the firm – EKFS members learned, for example, how good agronomy at AC Goatham’s 46-year-old Conference pear orchard has seen yields rise from around 35 tonnes per hectare in 2014 to about 42 tonnes in 2016. It is expecting a further increase this year.
There was a feeling among growers on the EKFS walk that, in addition to the fact that lower fruit volumes could lead to an improved balance between supply and demand, the weak value of the pound could help growers in that it will make imported European fruit more expensive.
Meanwhile, Sarah Calcutt, general manager of top-fruit producer organisation Avalon Growers and chair of the National Fruit Show, notes that because of Europe’s weather conditions this year fruit size is going to be larger. Interestingly, this is potentially good news for English fruit growers. She explains: "As a nation we eat much smaller-sized fruit so their [Europe’s] small fruit usually comes this way as it doesn’t have a place on their home market. But one of the problems with frost is that you are going to have a lot more larger fruit so it will suit their market, not ours."
Calcutt also reveals that although some growers have "empty" orchards because of the frost, Avalon’s most recent crop assessments are an improvement on what was first predicted. "There are still many beautiful orchards filled with Gala and Braeburn. As a group, we have carried out several assessments in the orchards and, as people have analysed their crops further, recent estimates have improved. But it’s a mainly going to be a case of grading at the tree."
She adds: "Six-to-eight weeks after the frosts a lot of the pear orchards looked awful. But they look fine now. The pears have good shape, good colour and good skin."
On another positive note, Calcutt highlights that another reason for this year’s low yields is the fact that because of growers’ continual investment in their businesses many old orchards have been grubbed. Support from retailers has been impressive so far this year. "The ones that we work with are listening. This has been a year where things have had to change a bit because there’s not as much choice of fruit as usual. They have a good understanding of what the pressures have been this season. They have been having discussions [with growers] about pack sizes and specification changes because of the frost damage, for example."
It would therefore appear that while top-fruit volumes will be lower this year, the support that growers are getting from UK retailers, coupled with reduced competition from the continent, should help alleviate the difficulties caused by this year’s extreme weather conditions.