State of the Industry - Top fruit potential

New varieties and improved storage technology can help British growers achieve 60 per cent market share, say industry representatives. Gavin McEwan reports

Top fruit: Gala and its clones continue to drive UK market share because they meet modern tastes in finish, colour and taste - image: HW
Top fruit: Gala and its clones continue to drive UK market share because they meet modern tastes in finish, colour and taste - image: HW

After successfully turning around their industry over the past two decades, British top-fruit growers should now aim to increase their market share by half as much again, according to former English Apples & Pears (EAP) chief executive Adrian Barlow.

Comparing today’s industry with the way he found it 20 years ago (see box, p28) "is like chalk and cheese", says Barlow, who stood down from his position in charge of the industry’s promotional body in July.

"We have seen massive increase in the production and sales of English apples, from 23 per cent of the total apples marketed in 2003 to over 40 per cent this year. Sales to the multiples have gone up from 57,000 tonnes when we started measuring this in 2006-07 to 112,000 tonnes this season, and that has been hugely beneficial to the industry."

This is due in large measure to investment in technology, he points out. "What we have seen at the best growers has been at least as good as anywhere else in the world, possibly better, though not all are at that standard. But growers need adequate returns so they can continue to invest and the ongoing Russian import ban has not helped here. We will see not just automated picking but also pruning and precision application of plant-protection products, all of which will reduce costs further."

The gradual regaining of domestic market share will continue, he believes. "English apples aren’t yet available 12 months a year, though the season is extending. Last season we sold 2,800 tonnes of dessert apples after 28 April — twice the previous highest figure — thanks to new varieties."

This and improved storage technology "should allow us to increase our domestic market share to 60 per cent — that’s half as much again", he adds. But beyond 60 per cent "there are varieties for which there is a specific demand that we can’t meet — Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Pink Lady, which we’re not even allowed to grow here. There is also work to be done on in-store presentations that grab consumers’ attention. Sometimes you shudder at the way fresh produce is treated."

Inadequate procurement

Meanwhile, "the level of public procurement of British fruit is inadequate", adds Barlow. "Government has to be careful about showing preference but there are good reasons to buy British, not least eating quality and environmental impact." He notes that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is likely to free its hands in this regard.

Another consequence of Brexit is the greater opportunity to export fruit, an option rarely pursued by UK growers in the past. "Overseas markets such as India should be opened up to British fruit if there are restrictions and EAP has been working on this with Defra and UKTI — it’s in line with Government policy," says Barlow. "It’s extremely difficult to get hold of requirements for exporting to country A, and we have been keen to address that.

"Apples from the UK aren’t suitable for all markets. Many want large red apples. You can make sure the opportunities are available but the decision as to whether it’s worthwhile would have to come from the individual grower or marketer. That said, some are already linking with overseas organisations experienced in export market development."

Even if greater returns are achieved, the weaker pound now also means that "growers face the increased cost of anything imported or priced in euros or dollars" as well as labour, he adds.

Higher prices for imports

In the meantime, a weakening of the pound is likely to lead to higher prices for imported fruit, points out Steven Munday, Barlow’s successor as EAP chief executive. 

On the current market, Munday adds: "We have seen 11.2 per cent sales growth last year through the multiples. We continue to grow due to Gala and its clones, which are in line with modern tastes in finish, colour and taste, though others like Cox aren’t overlooked. But there has been a disappointing fall-off in Bramley sales that we have to get to grips with."

He identifies "Brexit, seasonal labour, producer organisations and now price inflation" as the big issues facing the industry. Echoing this, NFU horticulture board chair and Worcestershire apple and hops grower Ali Capper explains the union’s priorities on growers’ behalf. "We are lobbying for free trade inside and outside the EU," she says.

"Producer organisations are key. We had a very useful meeting with the Government recently and are scoping what that investment stream should look like — ideally easier to use and possibly open to other sectors. We need to communicate the critical impact these have had on the top-fruit sector as well as soft fruit and vining peas over the last 10-12 years."

Brexit "gives us the opportunity to tighten up on plant health without obstructing trade — we don’t want to make it more complicated to bring in fruit trees", she adds.

Joyles: Gala and Braeburn will pick more than last year but season was 10 days late

Trade deal important

Crop protection "is tied up with what sort of trade deal we end up with", says Capper. "I like to think we will still get some sort of bespoke deal. There is an opportunity to bring back some [national] control and we have been talking to the CRD [Chemicals Regulation Directorate] about what that might look like, but we have to be pragmatic."

Growers have experienced "significant change" in the availability of labour as a result of Brexit, she points out. "Our currency is worth less and we send out a message to the further parts of Europe that they are not welcome — will they even be safe here? They are choosing to go to Germany, France or Italy instead. We are definitely experiencing problems. But we expect to trial a substantial permit scheme next year."

She adds: "Quite a lot of permanent jobs including middle management in our sector also rely on workers from elsewhere. We want certainty that they will be allowed to stay and await a clear signal from Government. Seasonal labour isn’t really a migration issue but permanent labour is. But there is a labour shortage in this country."

Michael Joyles, chief commercial officer at one of the UK’s largest top-fruit growing groups, Avalon Produce, says: "The impact of Brexit has so far been minimal, though it will put up costs. You buy your trees in euros and the cost of planting is going up with the cost of labour, so that is likely to be reined back. But enough have already gone in over the last two-to-four years that are now coming into fruition. Overall the English top-fruit sector is in a good position."

But he adds of the current season: "Gala and Braeburn will pick more than last year, but the season was ten days late and the early varieties were stop-start, so you have a shorter window to sell more stuff, and so general sales in the industry have been slightly behind."

He adds: "Pears are in decline and there is work needing doing on varieties, and with consumers on how best to use them." 

Ross Newham, operations director at fruit research station NIAB EMR, says: "Pear production in the UK isn’t as profitable as it could be, but more intensive systems such as those we are trialling at EMR should make it more economically viable." 

Adrian Barlow: Former chief executive, English Apples & Pears

How research and promotional activities for apples and pears have progressed over time

Before English Apples & Pears (EAP), a statutory levy-funded body responsible for research and promotion, the Apple & Pear Development Council ran from 1967 to 1989. "Growers decided they wanted research and development to be split away from promotion," Adrian Barlow explains.

The short-lived Apple & Pear Research Council ran from 1990-93 before later merging with the Horticultural Development Council, while promotion passed to the newly formed EAP, he adds.

A separate Bramley apple campaign had focused on TV and radio advertising, "but its funding was inadequate for that so from 1992 onwards it became a PR campaign, alongside a campaign promoting Cox, then the most widely grown English dessert variety," says Barlow.

"I first became involved in 1996, when as marketing director for Home Grown Fruit [later Fruition] I was seconded for a children’s fruit giveaway," he continues. "That was extremely successful so I was asked to chair the Cox campaign." To meet changing industry needs, this soon became a more general English dessert apple campaign.

At this point "the industry had been in a poor state, with grubbing funded by the EU — you could still make money growing fruit for intervention then and the aim was to remove that surplus", he explains, pointing out that around 14 per cent of UK orchards disappeared at this time.

Meanwhile, the campaign "hadn’t been achieving the regional and national coverage that was required", he says. "We needed to persuade consumers to demand English apples because of their superior taste and the support this gave to local economies — ‘food miles’ had yet to become an issue. EAP went from being a marketing organisation to one that was responsible for all industry promotion, though still with a budget of under £0.5m." 

Early on Barlow urged the renaming of the UK-bred Fiesta and German-bred Alkmene varieties to the more "English-sounding" Red Pippin and Early Windsor respectively, which proved to be "enormously beneficial", he says.

Finding a news angle has also been important to the annual campaign. "Under EU rules we couldn’t access funding to promote ‘English’ or ‘British’. We said ‘this is crazy’ and with the consumer media pretty hostile to the EU at that stage we got publicity unlike any we had ever had. That had a beneficial effect on retailers. It gave the industry a massive confidence boost."

Since then, he adds: "We have had to think of a different tactic each year as a reason to talk about them, such as the fact that two-thirds of shoppers think Granny Smith is English, or advances in technology and sustainability, and that continues to be extremely important, with a snowball effect in the media from year to year. We then continued to focus on PR and in-store activities and promotion, in tandem with individual retailers." 

But in the wake of this success, this role was increasingly taken on by individual suppliers’ marketers. "We also did a ‘retail service’, assessing displays for the quality of their fruit," with EAP’s Quality Fruit Group also embarking on advising growers and suppliers how to maximise fruit quality at retail.

Barlow also took over the Bramley campaign in 2008, by which time social media was emerging as a key means of engaging with consumers. "The campaign has focused on recipes, together with food writers and chefs, and on competitions via the new social media channels," he says.

"We have also taken any opportunity to promote the message of apples and pears as part of people’s five-a-day to improve health and reduce the risk of ailments. We were a founding member of the World Apple & Pear Association and have contributed as much as any country to that, including on health."

This has brought Barlow into conflict with the European Food Standards Authority over the level of proof required to make health claims for foodstuffs. "There are claims we should be able to make on asthma, on cancer, on blood disease — not that it’s a remedy but that on the basis of research, increased consumption is beneficial and indeed addresses the enormous costs of treating these conditions," he says. "I hope my successors continue to make this point with the Government."

Adrian Scripps: shift towards automatic harvesting 

Move from mechanisation to ‘robotisation’ means that growing systems will need to change

Emerging pre- and post-harvest technology will be key to the future profitability of UK top-fruit growing, Adrian Scripps managing director James Simpson told last month’s GrowQuip industry event.

"We still have too many humans in our business and we are prepared to invest to displace labour," he said. "Kit has been built around the driver, but if you take the driver out you can have smaller robotic machines — look at automatic mowers. We will move from mechanisation to ‘robotisation’, but that means changing our growing system."

Already the Kent-based company has planted a concept orchard intended to be automatically harvested. "For monitoring and picking, this means we need all the fruit visible in a single plane. A worker can pick a third to half-a-tonne an hour. Robots can’t match that yet, but will get there, maybe in six years’ time. You want to make sure the apple is picked at the abscission layer and there are vacuum harvesters that do this by sucking the apples off the tree."

In all, he added, "There are as many as 40 different applications in fresh produce including drones that map fields, spraying robots and rigs that harvest from all directions. We will continue to invest in anything that will drive this forward."

Following a £2.5m investment in 2013, a "pre-grader" sorts bins of freshly picked fruit to specific grades based on size, weight, internal quality, sugar content and external quality, he explained. "We have the only machine in Europe that can do all this. It’s a robot in the sense that it does it all autonomously. Imperfect apples are no use to us. We don’t have many and those we have don’t make us money."

Its central centralised storage and packing site, has 65 controlled atmosphere chambers that each hold up to 300 tonnes of fruit for six-to-eight months depending on variety. "You can harvest Gala on three farms on the same day and they will have different storage requirements. You stress the apple then put it to sleep."

Simpson: explained at GrowQuip how guiding philosophy to be part of the solution has helped grow turnover

This involves taking out carbon dioxide and replacing oxygen with nitrogen, while the fruit’s skin colour is also monitored as an indicator of stress, with conditions adapting accordingly throughout the time in store.

Geared largely to supplying fruit to Tesco, "we grow what they want, from orchard conception to delivery", said Simpson. "Our guiding philosophy is to be part of the solution." This has helped it grow to a £12m turnover, supplying blackcurrants, combinable crops and even wine grapes as well as apples and pears.

A culture of innovation goes back to the company’s founder in the 1950s, he added. "As a first-generation grower, Adrian Scripps himself had no preconceived ideas. He was a time-and-motion guy who favoured simple solutions done well on a large scale."

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