With localism and food security on the political agenda, the National Fruit Show chose for its Big Debate the question of whether the UK can become 50 per cent self-sufficient in fruit.
Yes - if it were profitable to do so, said English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow. "British Bramleys already account for 95 per cent of the UK culinary apple market," he pointed out. "Yet this year's Bramley crop was down 18 per cent, largely as a result of grubbing up, and that's down to profitability."
British-grown pears, by contrast, account for less than 20 per cent of the market. "There's an opportunity for massive import replacement, but many orchards are quite old and, again, the profitability isn't there to justify investment," Barlow said.
Laurence Gould senior consultant Simon Dennison asked: "Why would anyone grow pears here when yields are only half what they are in southern Europe?"
Barlow said: "Yields could be raised from 12t/ha to 50t/ha, as recent trials at East Malling have shown. But that will cost £30,000/ha and growers won't invest unless they know it's worthwhile."
Much the same applies to dessert apples, he said. "Consumption of apples is stagnant across Europe and there is enormous concern about their low value - lower even than here. We have outstanding eating quality, the best in the world, and we need to emphasise that. But we also need to develop the category as a whole."
NFU chief adviser for horticulture and potatoes Hayley Campbell-Gibbons agreed. "The return on capital in fruit is poor and growers don't have the confidence to invest. They are being squeezed as retailers aim to offer value to the consumer," she said.
However, she argued that the sector could take some action. "Plums are one area we have to sort out," she said. "The marketers need to talk more to the growers. There has to be more coordination through the chain - who is selling what, where?"
New Covent Garden Market Authority head of communication Helen Evans said the UK industry should consider other sales channels besides retail. "It tends to look at the wholesale market as a dumping ground, particularly for older varieties," she said. The catering sector offered greater returns, she added.
"Two-thirds of food expenditure is outside the home where we are more prepared to spend a bit more on something better," she said. "There is demand for the right variety. Children want an apple that is relatively small and has some red on it. If you aren't supplying that, you are allowing importers to do so."
Hadlow College director of finance and head of horticulture Mark Lumsdon-Taylor said the sector needed to be reinvigorated with fresh home-grown talent.
"The import of skilled workers cannot continue - those skills will have to be home-grown in future," he said. "Change the perception of the industry and we will get new people in. With that and with better consumer understanding and support, we can get to 50 per cent."
Sarah Calcutt, chair of show organiser the Marden Fruit Show Society, added: "We will have an education officer working in schools over the next 12 months. Careers officers haven't got a clue what we offer."
Eyes on Europe
However, Campbell-Gibbons said overseas labour remained vital in the medium term. "We need an extension to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme past 2013, and are confident we can get it," she said. "Every grower has a story about failed recruitment. We still need to supplement our labour force with workers from abroad."
Barlow argued that the trend will be for less labour generally. "There will be much greater mechanisation over the next 10 years," he said, but pointed out: "The European money through the producer organisations has been invaluable and needs to continue. Yet many have found themselves suspended or de-recognised by the EU. They want to comply, but are in an impossible position."
The eurozone's woes could also be damaging, Barlow said. "It's critical that we're not undermined by those countries that export to us. That would prevent any increase in the UK share of the market - indeed, it would go backwards," he warned.
"Other countries already have the UK in their sights," Campbell-Gibbons added. "People won't buy British out of loyalty; it has to be the right quality at the right price."
Fresh talent Hadlow's apprenticeship scheme
Hadlow College in Kent is soon to launch a three-year apprenticeship scheme tailored to fruit-growing. Speaking at the National Fruit Show, finance director Mark Lumsdon-Taylor said: "The sector needs and deserves high-quality entrants, and we aim to be the catalyst for that."
He added, however, that the sector needs to put its hand in its pocket. "These positions are ineligible for government funding. Instead, we expect sponsorship of places from growers and professional bodies. Already, two growers have agreed to fully fund places," he said.
The programme will be split into six-month segments, which would also include spells in packing, processing and retail. Kent NFU chairman Charles Tassell, who led the industry consultation on the scheme, said: "We want them to go round the supermarkets so they understand the industry from that side, too."
Show organiser Sarah Calcutt added: "Now we have an opportunity to get people in from school. But it will only work if we all make it happen."
Lumsdon-Taylor told HW: "Once sponsorship is in place, we aim to start it this side of Christmas."