Confidence in top fruit production is greater than for many years and one of those making an important contribution to this situation is Simon Foad, winner of February's 2008 Top Fruit Grower of the Year Award. He believes that the industry is going through pretty exciting times thanks to consumers' greater interest in local produce, backed by the multiples, and their realisation that it is as good as, if not better than, imported fruit.
New varieties that have better yield and quality potential are helping to improve English fruit's image, while marketers - sometimes criticised in the past for falling down on the job - now seem to have largely improved their performance, says Foad.
He is a strong supporter of fruit competitions and awards because they put growers collectively and individually in a good light and provide useful publicity for growers and their products. His employer, the Highland Investment Company (HIC), based at Bridge near Canterbury, has benefited from Foad's success by printing its Grower of the Year Awards win on the labels of its Marks & Spencer pre-packs.
Foad came into fruit production by a somewhat circuitous and lengthy route that has enabled him to view the top fruit scene and assess new ideas more objectively. After leaving school he spent his first years as a tractor driver on Tony Redsell's Brook Farm in Reculver, Kent. Its main enterprises were arable and vegetable production and cattle. From there he did a three-year stint as a spray operator/fruitman on Brogdale Farm and then moved to Rothamsted Research to work on arable trials.
During his time at Brogdale, Foad developed a keen interest in fruit production and while at Rothamsted he realised that he had an as-yet-unexploited talent for management. At this stage he decided that a formal qualification was necessary for him to progress his interest in management so he signed on as a mature student (aged 30) at Wye College to do a three-year BSc honours degree in agriculture and the environment.
After graduating, he ran a pick-your-own unit at Swanley, Kent, for two years - producing a wide range of fruit and vegetables - and for the next three years he was Clive Baxter's farm manager at Hunton, near Maidstone. During that period his knowledge of fruit production increased considerably and Baxter's enthusiasm for showing fruit at the National Fruit Show and flair for innovation rubbed off on him.
Foad's career developed further late in 2002 when he was appointed to the post of farms manager for HIC. This job entailed a big increase in his responsibilities as the total area of the five farms concerned, in east Kent, is around 400ha, most of which is fruit. The company also has two 55ha arable units that are let on farm business tenancies.
"This job is a big step up from what I was doing before," he says. "I have a very good boss, Mr Ian Johnston,who has given me a free hand."
He has taken full advantage of Johnston's faith in his business acumen and ability to develop the company into one of the most progressive and efficient fruit producers in the country. He has diversified the cropping, modernised the age profile of the orchards and improved the motivation of his workforce - something he regards as vital for the smooth and efficient running of the business.
"We've now got a very good team of (11) permanent workers," says Foad. "One of the secrets of keeping them happy is to encourage them to think of ways of doing the job better. Some have built up a lot of knowledge over the years and it's important to tap into it. Our staff turnover has gone right down but getting good fruit workers is a big problem. Fewer and fewer youngsters want to come into the industry, and those who do tend to want to start at the top."
Foad is trying to address this problem by training some of his better foreign students (employed mainly for fruit picking) from countries like Latvia, Estonia and Poland, and encouraging them to stay on without necessarily taking up permanent residency.
Skills are crucial to Foad. One of his key workers - Hilda McCabe, whom he regards as one of the industry's best multi-row beds pruners - has developed repetitive strain injury in her hand and so can no longer do the job herself. However, her skill is not lost to the company, because she is now training five others to do the job. Foad reckons that all of his pruning staff are very good, including Steve Fox, who prunes all the Cox on MM106 - a major challenge.
Foad says he has adopted a more modern, technical approach to improve the farms' productivity and profit potential and works closely with Paul Bennett of Agrovista to achieve those aims. A major part of this strategy is reducing the farms' area of Cox, currently the largest variety with 70ha.
"We're heavily into Cox but we're changing it very quickly because its economics don't stack up," he says. "It doesn't yield enough, is very hard to manage and prune and doesn't produce a big enough class I grade-out.
"We're grubbing our old Cox on MM106 and replanting (a smaller area) with the Le Vera clone on M9," he adds. "If you plant other clones you're dead in the water, because their grade-out just isn't good enough. You need to get 90 per cent or more class I (irrespective of variety)."
His more modern approach also entails diversifying both apple varieties and types of crop. When he took over at HIC's farms, apples, pears, blackcurrants and plums were already being grown and he has since introduced apricots, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, asparagus and walnuts for nut and timber production. He intends to add other crops to the list.
The main apple varieties are Bramley, Cox, Braeburn, Gala and Shogun (Fuji), which he considers is the right mix for his supermarket customers - although one or two more may be planted in place of Cox. Foad adds: "We were the first (commercial) growers to plant apricots (currently 3.5ha) and I'm confident that if the weather is with us we will get a decent yield and the crop will be profitable. Supermarket demand for them is good. We've had two or three useful crops and this is the first year we've lost the crop (due to severe frosts)."
The same thing happened to the company's 15ha of plums but the trees are now "dripping with fruit bud" so next year's crop should be very good, although fruit thinning will be a bigger job than usual. After their off-year the apricots should also produce a good crop.
The company's main plum varieties are Opal, Victoria and Marjorie's Seedling but unlike most growers Foad has planted greengages to supply supermarkets with something different. He said that "a wise old grower" told him that as many varieties of greengage as possible should be grown to ensure good pollination. His best-known variety is Cambridge Gage but he also has others including several French types.
Foad is a member of the East Kent Benchmark Group, which has strongly influenced many of his business decisions. It is run by Andersons The Farm Business Consultants and he works closely with the consultancy's partner, John Pelham.
Andersons has produced a computer programme into which financial and physical data are fed.
"One of the programme's most useful benefits is that it provides a cut-off point of when to grub. It shows that after 15 years an orchard generally is costing you money rather than making it," says Foad. "There wouldn't be another Cox orchard planted if all growers had access to the programme. Although we now have a lot of young orchards our average orchard age is 22 years, which is too old. We'd like to get it down to 10 years and we should be there in five years' time - and then we'll have quite a quick orchard turnover.
"We've always believed that yield is king but the programme shows that it's not," he says. "The class I grade-out is king and it needs to be 90 per cent or better. We're getting that with our newer varieties but not with Cox, although some of our Le Vera is close to it."
As a member of HDC's Tree Fruit Panel, Foad's extensive commercial and trials experience is proving very useful. He also likes to see how overseas top fruit industries operate under the increasingly difficult economic conditions. He recently went on an Agrovista trip to Washington state, where he found that its industry's strengths and weaknesses are the opposite to those in the UK.
"They are not as advanced as us on the growing side but their marketing and distribution are very slick and impressive," he says. "However, we're now able to give our marketing desks what they want, so things are improving."
HIC has one of Worldwide Fruit's packhouses, equipped with an eight-lane computer-controlled Greefa grader with an output of 80 to 90 bins per day and a pear grader. The company recently invested around £500,000 in six 525-bin controlled atmosphere (CA) stores with a chill tunnel holding 750 bins. Its existing capacity comprises 13 cold air stores and eight CA stores.
Looking to the future, Foad says: "I'd like to think that I'm here for the duration. Our team has done a lot of hard work that's now beginning to bear fruit - if you'll excuse the pun."
CV: SIMON FOAD
Circa 1980: Tractor driver on Tony Redsell's Brook Farm, Reculver, Kent
Circa 1986: Spray operator, Brogdale Farm
Circa 1990: Trials work, Rothamsted Research
1993-96: BSc in agriculture, Wye College
1996-98: Manages PYO unit at Swanley, Kent
1998-2002: Farm manager, Clive Baxter, Hunton, Kent
2002 to present: Farms manager, Highland Investment Company