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BIFGA Spring Farm Walk 2019

This year’s BIFGA (British Independent Fruit Growers’ Association) Spring Farm Walk was an opportunity for its members to visit one of the leading top-fruit fruit farms in Kent. In fact, the opportunity was so welcome that around 100 people attended the event at AC Goatham & Son’s Howt Green Farm near Sittingbourne in early May.

AC Goatham & Son, an award-winning family business run by father and son Clive and Ross Goatham, is very open about the fact that its strategy is based on a long-term view. Given that this growing business now boastssome two million trees on 28 farms, the strategy is clearly a winning formula. From its investment in state-of-the-art storage facilities to the trialling of new growing methods, those who attended the Spring Farm Walk at Howt Green Farm were given many insights into Goatham’s forward-thinking approach.

The sponsors

The walk began with visitors gathering in the farm’s state-of-the-art storage facility. They were introduced to the sponsors of the event by BIFGA Chairman John Breach. As the saying in the fruit industry goes, “You can’t grow it if you can’t store it.” It was fittingthat two of this year’s sponsors were Orchard Cooling and Storage Control Systems (SCS), both of which have worked on the farm’s cold stores. The first block of stores was built some ten years ago, the second one in 2013, and the latest one was completed in 2018. Howt Green Farm now has a storage capacity of 30,000 bins.

Orchard Cooling’s Paul Kennett said: “As engineers and electrical specialists, we have worked with Ross and Clive for quite a few years and we are very proud to be able to sponsor this event in their stores and to see the business grow and hopefully ours growing with it.” Speaking to The Fruit Growerafter the event, Paul noted that Howt Green Farm’s stores are user-friendly and energy efficient. “We have mainly used secondary refrigeration with glycol and external chillers with low-charge hydrocarbon gas, HFC (hydrofluorocarbon)chillersand an energy-saving software controller linked to the stores’ control system. These are accessible on a mobile phone, to keep an eye on things.”

Paul also noted that the stores, most of which have capacities of 200 to 300 tonnes, operate with very low primary base charge in the chillers. This keeps down the requirement for large amounts of refrigerant gas, as with DX systems. Paul added: “The stores have user-friendly controls and energy-saving features on fan control and liquid pumps. Defrost is minimal due to the very large surface area of the bespoke coolers inside the controlled atmosphere (CA) stores.” He also pointed out that the secondary refrigeration systems use DTX food-safe glycol that complies with the EU’s F-Gas regulations.

The visitors were also introduced to Jake Taylor, construction coordinator at SCS – a Kent-based supplier of atmosphere-modifying and monitoring equipment and cold store construction company. Jake reminded growers that there are many different elements to consider when building a CA store, including location, planning and design. He informed the visitors that SCS can help to eliminate hassle by helping top-fruit businesses through every stage of the process. “We have helped customers with the planning stage in the past, and we can supply a design for you, such as incorporating different size stores, chilled passageways, packhouses, freezers and ripening rooms, as well as accommodation blocks.” Jake emphasised that SCS can provide a package incorporating groundworks, steel frame, cold store construction, electrics, refrigeration and CA under one umbrella, tailored to the client’s needs.

Given that Kent has already experienced hailstorms this year, it was quite timely that hail insurance provider Weatherbys Hamilton was another of this year’s sponsors. Jonny McIrvine, a partner at the insurance broker, explained that Weatherbys, working with Dutch hail insurance specialist OFH, is now insuring more than 60 policies and just under £10 million of fruit. He said: “The OFH policy works in a very different way to the standard policies in the UK. It allows you to choose the value of the fruit that you insure; it does not require you to insure all your fruit or all the fruit in an orchard. You can pick and choose what you insure and where. If you have a loss, it will be adjusted before you pick. You know before you pick what you will be getting from the insurance and you will get that in December of the same year.” Jonny also highlighted that hail insurance is assisted by the subsidies that are available to Producer Organisations from the Rural Payments Agency.

Entering the ‘pink sector’

Goatham’s Technical Director Nigel Stewart led the walk around the farm, informing BIFGA members that the business acquired Howt Green Farm in 2008. “At that time the varieties included Bramley, Conference pears, cherries, Cox, Discovery and plums. The Cox, Discovery and plums all met their end, but we still have the original Bramley, cherries and two blocks of Conference on the farm.” Nigel added that, whilst the farm comprised 53ha when Goatham’s bought it, it now occupies 142ha as the firm has acquired new land over the past decade. In keeping with the business’s forward-thinking approach, the grubbed orchards have been replaced with V-system Conference pears, cherries, Gala, Braeburn, Bramley and a new variety for the UK, Flanders Pink.

Nigel added, “There is a 3ha reservoir for irrigation, holding 22 million gallons, and we have an application in to double that. As you can appreciate, given the size of the farm, we are probably going to need all of that. The final planting, except for the last 8ha, will be finished this coming autumn. A total of 136ha will be completed and it will just leave the original Bramley orchard, a small cherry orchard and the two original Conference pear orchards. Everything else will have been replanted.”

The walk around the orchards began with a visit to a Flanders Pink block that was planted two years ago. The variety (a Kanzi x Greenstar cross) was bred in Europe and discovered by Goatham’s two years ago. Commercial director Carol Ford revealed that Goatham’s, the sole marketer of this apple in the UK, is confident that the variety will successfully emulate the competition. She said: “We are all very excited about it. We thought it had a chance of doing something quite spectacular in the marketplace., and we have plans to plant more trees over the coming years. It’s quite an exciting product, and we are just trying to make sure that we have done all of the research, from both a grower and consumer perspective.”

Carol explained to the visiting group that Goatham’s has been carrying out extensive research on how consumers react to the Flanders Pink apple, including how people respond to it at the point of purchase and how its taste compares to other pink apples. The firm’s Director of Farming, Peter Bukowski, added that the variety “has had a pretty good start so far, but it’s still early days.” He added: “This is the second crop and we are still learning, but it hasn’t suffered from any diseases, so it has been no different to growing Gala.”

Focused on the future

A new Gala planting was the next stop, when Peter briefly discussed the farm’s thinning regime for these apples. He said: “We are not using any products during flowering time, and we always like to deal with a problem when we see it on the tree. And when we have plenty of apples on there, that’s when we like to thin chemically. We have been using Brevis for the last few years and it’s had a very good effect. We started trialling that three years ago and everything went well, and we are very happy with it.”

The group also visited one of the farm’s top-performing Gala orchards. Whilst only in its fourth leaf, having been planted in 2016, the orchard yielded 52 tonnes/ha last season and is expected to produce 65 tonnes/ha this year. Peter said: “It’s amazing that this planting is only three years old. An average of 65 tonnes/ha of Gala is what we are happy with.”

Given the firm’s high level of expertise and willingness to try new growing techniques, good yields are not solely the result of good fortune. BIFGA members learned, for instance, that Goatham’s has invested heavily in the innovative V-system for Conference pears. Nigel revealed that he hopes that when mature, these high-density plantings will yield 50-55 tonnes/ha. “The UK’s top-fruit industry supplies just 9% of all the Conference pears that are consumed in the UK, so we have a massive market to fill. They come into cropping a lot quicker than they used to, so we think it’s the right thing to do.” Peter Bukowski explained that the trees have four stems, but sometimes a fifth stem is added to slow down the growth and enable the business to pick some extra pears.

The walk also included a quick stop at Howt Green Farm’s small, nine-year-old cherry orchard that Peter had just pruned. He said: “We’ve just finished pruning them and will put the covers on soon. I like to put them on after flowering because some of the varieties are cross-pollinated.” He added that the farm carries out good hygiene practices and has not had any major problems with SWD. The varieties included Penny, which last year cropped at 25.1 tonnes/ha; Regina, which yielded 27.5 tonnes/ha, and Kordia, which produced 30.5 tonnes/ha.

The visitors were also shown around some of the farm’s more established trees, such as an old Bramley orchard that was earmarked to be grubbed. Nigel said: “It’s been a very productive orchard, but we are trying to reduce our Bramley area.” Also being replaced were two blocks of Braeburn that the group walked past towards the end of the walk. Evidently, the Goatham’s management is acutely focused on the future and is unafraid to invest in tomorrow’s varieties. As the BIFGA visitors learned, such varieties will include Flanders Pink as the company completes the farm’s new plantings over the coming few years.