Thatchers Cider has planted its newest orchards with automation in mind, rather than waiting for technology to adapt to existing formats.
This was the message from company chairman John Thatcher at last week's orchard and machinery day at Shiplate Orchard near Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.
Addressing the crowd at the 50ha site acquired by Thatchers in 2009, he said: "If we are to use 'shake and catch' that means growing on a hedgerow system. But the machinery is very expensive so we had to have enough area to justify the cost. No-one else has planted hedgerows on this scale."
Nine cider varieties numbering 70,000 trees were planted in 2010 and 2012, with "some doing better than others, not necessarily the ones we expected", Thatcher explained. "They will start cropping reasonably at five years and we expect to get 20-25 years out of them."
Rows will reach 3m in height, 2m wide with a 1.5m spacing, with 3m-wide alleys. "We are determined to keep them small," he said, by using what he described as "mechanical shaping rather than pruning".
Commenting on the company's prototype tunnel shaper and harvester, demonstrated on the day, SFM Technology's Ian Game said: "This wouldn't be here without John. But the market for this is expanding globally, particularly North America and Australia." He added that a lot of advances will be incorporated in the future based on work at Thatchers. These include an interchangeable spraying module.
Richard Tooby of Tooby Engineering was at the orchard and machinery day to demonstrate a closed-loop tunnel sprayer that is capable of saving around 40 per cent in chemical use. "Any chemical that doesn't land on the tree is sucked back up, it is more expensive and can only spray up to 3.25m-high trees," he said.
Thatcher added: "I am committed to tunnel spraying - it gives good coverage and lets us spray in less than ideal conditions."
Tree supplier to the site John Worle urged all growers embarking on novel growing systems to carefully record performance because "there is very little trial work being done on systems despite huge acreages of cider orchards being planted".
The annual orchard and machinery day was previously hosted by Bulmers.
Trials New varieties
At Thatchers' main Sandford site, 8km from Shiplate, a further 25 heritage varieties are being trialled alongside 29 more recent varieties. Chairman John Thatcher said. "We mainly want to test for habit. A lot still have something to offer, but we have to trial them first. It's something we should have done years ago."