The supermarket said it wanted to increase English top fruit production because unproductive old pear orchards were being grubbed at an alarming rate. "Many are being replaced by apple orchards," said a representative. "Apples produce commercial crops in three to four years. Pears grown traditionally take five to six years."
The new Concept Orchard should bear its first fruit in 2010 and produce three times as much than one planted traditionally, which would be unlikely to fruit until 2015.
Sainsbury's brand director Judith Bachelar said the store sold more English apples and pears than any other retailer, so a new orchard would make a big difference to the availability of English pears. "The Conference variety is the UK's favourite pear, and at Sainsbury's we sell 32.3% of the pears grown, which is more than any other retailer."
Only 12,500 tonnes of pears sold in the UK were British, she said. But if growers used better techniques they could potentially triple the tonnage.
Four planting regimes will be evaluated at the East Malling orchard: traditional bush, multi-V, double-head and single-stem techniques.
Sainsbury's product technologist Dr Theresa Huxley said: "This orchard complements Pear Sucker and Cherry and Plum DEFRA projects for controlling pests and disease with minimal environmental impact."