Growers visit award-winning Kent orchards

Bad weather meant this year's East Kent Fruit Society farm walk took a different turn. Brian Lovelidge reports.

Kent grower Andrew Parker, whose 1.5ha of Egremont Russet was named orchard of the year in the East Kent Fruit Society (EKFS) 2009 orchard competition, had his thunder stolen by a hail storm. It caused enough damage to force the traditional walk around the winning orchard and farm to be switched to another venue.

The hail struck on 24 July, a week or so after the judges had visited his 20ha Crowhurst Hop Farm, in East Peckham. Although the hail caused flecking of the fruit's skin rather than breaking it, the damage was sufficient to render the affected apples fit only for juice, thus reducing their value by some 80 per cent.

The six-year-old, two-row-bed orchard's crop is estimated at 2,250 30lb (13.6kg) boxes or 94 bins/ha. The trees, on M9 rootstock, are spaced at 3.7m x 1.25m x 1.25m.

"We've been here for 33 years and we've never had hail before," said Parker, who won the EKFS accolade in 2007 with a different Egremont Russet orchard. "It's not (resulted in) a total wipeout but it's taken the shine off our crop. We'll pick what (sound fruit) we can for storage but it's difficult to say what proportion (of the crop) that will be."

The top orchard was also judged the best, with more than 2,500 trees/ha. In addition, it won the hygiene award.

The walk took place on Richard Day's Great Cheveney Farm, Marden, on the basis that he had entered the best orchard with under 2,500 trees/ha. It was a six-year-old 2ha block of two-row-bed Gala on M9, spaced at 3.5m x 1.5m x 1.25m. Day estimated its crop at around 123 bins/ha, making it one of the 81ha farm's highest-yielding orchards.

Day won the EKFS competition's best new entrant award in 2004 and its most meritorious award in 2005. This year, the farm has more or less full crops of all of its varieties, including Gala, Cox, Jazz and Egremont Russet.

Gala (Mondial) is the main variety and will remain so because it produces consistently high yields and is in good demand. Most of it is planted in three-row beds with a population of around 2,500 trees/ha. However, future orchards will be single-row, like Day's 16.2ha of Jazz. This was planted in 2007 at nearby Haymans Hill, Horsmonden. The trees, on M9, are supported by stakes and spaced at 1.25m x 3.5m to give a population of some 2,300 trees/ha.

Farm Advisory Services Team (FAST) representative Don Vaughan, who advises Day, said Great Cheveney Farm produces consistently very good yields of high-quality fruit because operations are done to a high standard at the right time. That includes hand thinning, which in Gala's case is absolutely essential.

"It's our most expensive operation," said Day. "We try to get an average size of 68mm to 70mm for Gala. This year our thinning costs were about half of last year's because we used ATS (ammonium thiosulphate, a blossom thinner) on the bloom for the first time.

"Hand thinning (done with a gang of 20 to 30 workers) takes about five minutes per tree. We like to do it all in three to four weeks in June. Fruitlets on loaded branches are thinned to singles and the lighter branches to doubles."

Vaughan said that every year some growers did not thin their Gala hard enough. Ideally they should look for trees that have been adequately thinned and therefore have the optimum fruit size, then count the number of apples they carry. The following year, workers should leave that number on each tree of the relevant size they thin.

One of the visitors, Clive Baxter, who farms at Hunton near Maidstone, Kent, said he labelled each tree row with the name of the worker who had thinned it. If the job was not done well enough the person concerned was asked to go back to do it properly.

To see whether the new German tractor-mounted flail blossom thinner could help reduce fruitlet thinning costs, Baxter had it tested by its importer Nick Seymour on four single rows in each of six orchards.

"It was (generally) pretty good, although in one orchard it was not so good because it went a bit too slow," he said. "I was told that Jazz had been thinned too hard and I said that that was impossible, but he was right. Gala was not a bad job and the cost of hand thinning was halved. We did single rows, but when you've got double rows the machine is not going to do the job. The tractor goes pretty quick - 10km/h."

The competition's judges were Peter Checkley, Cor Van Oorshot and Jack Martin; their steward was Vaughan.


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