Top fruit - Harvest challenge

How is the top-fruit sector faring following a tough season - and what of prospects for next year? Gavin McEwan reports.

Increased top fruit imports are unlikely in the short term because harvests this year have also been poor elsewhere - image: HW
Increased top fruit imports are unlikely in the short term because harvests this year have also been poor elsewhere - image: HW

Last season’s rise of nearly 17 per cent in the volume of UK apple sales sold through supermarkets suggested that at least one sector of the British fresh produce industry was heading in the right direction. But dire weather this season has meant a slump of around 27 per cent.

"Clearly, the advance won’t continue this season," says English Apples & Pears (EAP) chief executive Adrian Barlow. "It’s a setback in the renaissance of the English industry, but it’s a temporary blip. The industry is still in a strong position to expand further in future. There is still potential to increase production by 40 per cent on last year."

Describing a turbulent year in the industry, he adds: "Only seven months ago, drought was declared in many areas. Two weeks of unusually warm weather broke dormancy, suggesting an early season. How wrong we were. Cold and wet weather kept the insects away and narrowed pollen tubes."

Sting in the tail

Barlow continues: "Then in August, good weather helped skin colour, but then we had the sting in the tail in the form of more bad weather in September." As a result, this year’s season is around three weeks late. The principal early variety, Discovery, has been "very disappointing", with weather marking meaning that at least half is suitable only for juice.

However, he says: "Mid-season varieties are sufficient to meet demand until the end of the year. Beyond that depends on the final crop and how much standards have been relaxed. But high juice prices mean that anyone with a marginal crop will send it straight through for juicing."
EAP’s "Still Tastes Great" campaign has encouraged consumers to look beyond physical imperfections, with journalists and broadcasters receiving free samples to reinforce the point.

"Supermarkets are already relaxing standards, which is enormously beneficial," says Barlow. "There is a statutory level set by the EU that they can’t go below. As long as skins are intact — we don’t want stuff going on the shelves that will deter customers." The taste this year is "surprisingly good", he adds.

The slippage in yield has varied for different varieties (see box). Bramley’s cooking apples are expected to be down by 22 per cent, less than for some varieties but compounded by recent grubbing by growers unable to make adequate returns, Barlow explains.

"Now we are paying the penalty. This year we have insufficient product to see us through, with the multiples reducing shelf space to slow the speed of sale. Specifications including size have already been lowered, but full demand won’t be met."

Dessert apples

On dessert apples, Gala has driven the move away from traditional varieties in recent decades. Now the UK’s leading dessert variety by volume, with over a quarter of the market, UK-grown fruit accounts for over a quarter of that.

Barlow explains: "There has been a huge upsurge in Gala production, though the development of new varieties will limit that rise in future. They will chip away at Gala in the same way as Gala has chipped away at Cox." Several of these new varieties — such as Zari, Jazz and Rubens — are grown on a licensed or "club" basis.

"New varieties have the potential to extend the season into June," says Barlow. "What we need are good new early varieties — a Gala for the start of August. But unless varieties can produce at least 50 tonnes a hectare with grade-outs of at least 85 per cent, they won’t succeed. That’s the lesson we learned from competing against Granny Smith and Golden Delicious in previous decades."

He observes of the latest imported variety to impact on the UK market, Pink Lady: "They have established a strong brand with a distinct appearance that draws consumers. Our breeders need to come up with a variety of similar appearance and eating qualities."

On pears, he adds: "People are looking at blush pears for UK growing. But Conference still dominates, while neither Comice nor Concorde sell as well. There is enormous potential to hugely increase UK pear production. Existing orchards are old and widely spaced. But to plant new, modern ones can only be justified by sufficient return on investment. Apple growers think that it can, but they can claim to be growing the finest-tasting in the world. Our pears don’t look or taste any better."

However, increased imports of top fruit are unlikely in the short term because harvests this year have also been poor elsewhere. "Pears in Europe are also down 25 per cent on last year," says Barlow. "The UK is down just four per cent — we will sell those easily."

Continental decline

Meanwhile, on apples, he explains: "France looks like being down 33 per cent. I would be surprised if the overall decline across the continent is less than 15 per cent. North America has also had terrible problems and the huge shortfall there will suck in a lot of product from the southern hemisphere, which will in turn impact on Europe. A relative shortage is assured over the next 10 months."

Sarah Calcutt, National Fruit Show chairman and representative of grower AC Goatham and marketing body Norman Collett, is enthusiastic about the English industry’s future. "There has been more change in the last 10 years than in the previous 30," she says. "There’s much less of the attitude of ‘we’ve always done it this way’. The guys at the top are doing very nicely thank you, but they are seeing it as a business rather than a lifestyle and make decisions on that basis."

Such growers "are more likely to have their own packhouses and cold stores, giving them a secondary source of income". But she adds: "The PO [producer organisation] structure is getting better and providing centralised buying, packing and storage, which keeps costs down [for their members] — the future for some independent growers will be there."

Easier to establish

New varieties also help make businesses stack up, she adds. "There will always be Coxes and there will always be Bramley’s. But new varieties are easier to establish and start cropping and reach full cropping earlier, so you make your money back sooner. They also have improved disease resistance."

New growing and maintenance formats are also key, allowing greater mechanisation and automation, including fine control of irrigation and fertigation. "In some now, nearly three-quarters of the pruning and thinning can be done by machine, giving you a huge labour saving," says Calcutt. "All those at the progressive end of the industry are moving towards more hedge-style planting."

Barlow agrees that today’s typical grower is a sharper operator. "Ten years ago, we had 1,100 growers. Now we have 400 growers, but very good growers," he says. "They need high levels of business skills. They also need to know their costs and how those compare, not just with growers in this country but also those overseas."

He points out: "There has also been investment in packing, grading and storage, which is important to ensure we can handle the increased volumes in future." Improved storage technology also ensures a longer season, hence greater overall sales of home-grown fruit, he adds. "We have made huge improvements in getting the supply chain to work together. Other fresh-produce sectors haven’t achieved the same level of cooperation."

Labour availability

One cloud on the horizon though is the availability of labour. "It will get increasingly difficult to get pickers," Barlow forecasts. "You can’t get the labour you need locally so you are dependent on workers from overseas. But we will lose the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme(SAWS) next year and don’t know what will replace it.

"Even a ‘son of SAWS’ will face the problem that as counties become more prosperous it will be harder to persuade them to do this kind of work. I would be surprised if in ten years we aren’t using robots to pick apples. Such machines will be dreadfully expensive at first but will come down in price. But we desperately need a new seasonal labour scheme in the meantime."

Cider and perry: sleeping giants of fruit industry

Accounting for nearly half of all the area of UK orchards, cider apple production is something of a sleeping giant within the British
fruit industry.

This low profile is partly down to scale, with the majority of the country’s 400-plus cider makers in the sub-70-hectolitre bracket, with its more favourable duty regime.
According to National Association of Cider Makers (NACM) representative Simon Russell, while no complete record of hectarages or yields is collected, last year’s volume was estimated at 200,000 tonnes — an all-time high. "We know what the big cider makers are pressing and they account for around 95 per cent of the total," he says.

The area of cider orchards is on the increase, he adds, explaining that "cider makers have planted more so that more of their supply is under their own long-term control".

The industry has faced the same challenges this season as its dessert apple cousins. At a recent South West England Cider Makers Association meeting, growers reported likely harvests down 10-50 per cent on expectations, says Russell, adding that the season will also be around three weeks late.

Weather worries aside, the main concern for the cider industry is the potential impact of threatened changes to the pricing and duty regime on an industry that views return on investment in decades rather than years.

NACM director and policy adviser Bob Price says: "The 70-hectolitre cutoff on tax is always under threat. But in the EU, all member states have their quirks and they don’t attack those of other countries for fear of attacks on their own."

Even the large cider producers benefit from a level of duty on cider less than half that payable on beer. "Cider is under threat from the beer lobby, which wants duty equalised," Price explains.
Another threat to the cider industry is minimum unit pricing, already passed into law in Scotland, he points out. "They have set a minimum of 50p per unit of alcohol — 80 per cent of cider is at or less than that. Will people be prepared to buy it at that mark-up? If not, it
will cease to be something familiar in the supermarkets."

A believer in the power of lobbying, Price says the NACM’s twice-yearly receptions with MPs "inform them

of the importance of cider making". He continues: "Politicians generally don’t have any preconceived ideas about the cider industry, but there

is a good story to tell on sustainability and support for rural communities. What it needs is a stable investment environment."

Grower view

Ali Capper, Stocks Farm, Herefordshire/Worcestershire border

"Generally, we feel optimistic. There is still a lot to play for in terms of import replacement. But after what has been a tough and expensive year, some growers will need to take a long hard look at their operation. You used to be able to stand a bad year because the bumper years would see you through, but they’re not so bumper any more.
"And while there have been stories about rising prices in the shops, there is a degree of scepticism among growers as to whether that will translate into higher prices at the farm gate.
"We’re just thankful we don’t grow Cox, though this year even Gala has struggled. You can’t be sentimental about it — if a variety isn’t giving you the yield and the grade-out, it’s gone. We are also lucky to have the support of [producer organisation] Wye Fruit, which
you need if you are not storing, grading and packing the fruit yourself."

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