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East Kent Fruit Society Blossom Walk 2017

The annual East Kent Fruit Society (EKFS) Blossom Walk took place at Clive Baxter’s Amsbury Farm at Hunton near Maidstone, Kent in early May.

JL Baxter & Son began farming in Linton near Maidstone in 1943 and Clive, the third generation of the farming family, has expanded the enterprise to around 140ha. Currently the business grows only tree fruits and is a member of the Fruition producer organization, marketing its produce through Worldwide Fruit Ltd.

The apple production area amounts to 48ha and includes the varieties Jazz, Gala, Cox, Bramley, Russet, Envy, Galmac and Estivale. The pear production amounts to 64ha and includes 20ha of organic orchards; the varieties include Conference, Comice and Concorde, and there are new plantings of QTee, Piqa Reo, Papple and Piqa Boo pears. The 12ha of plums consist primarily of Victoria, Marjorie and Opal. There is 1ha of apricots and 5ha of cherries that are all under covers. Clive also grows a small area of quinces for Waitrose and is trialling new varieties. An older area of quinces is a legacy from the 1930s and is left as a feature on the farm.

As EKFS members toured the orchards with Clive, they stopped at various points to discuss the different varieties and take in the stunning views across the Weald of Kent below, but the conversation revolved around the level of recent frost damage here and across Kent. Clive said that he has never previously found frost damage above a line drawn between the farm buildings at Amsbury Farm and his adjoining farm buildings at Westerhill Farm, but this year he has found pockets of frost damage on the slopes above. “In all orchards affected by frost, the damage is worse where the early morning sun has ruptured the frozen cells, so there is frost damage in areas at higher altitudes on our south facing slopes than previously seen. Our north facing orchards appear to be unscathed,” said Clive.

The first block of mature Bramley, located at the top of the bank, has generally cropped at 40-60 tonnes/ha. The younger Bramleys on MM106 rootstock have not performed so well, with yields of 25-30 tonnes/ha. – When asked about irrigation, Clive said the ragstone soil on the upper slopes didn’t need irrigation, but other areas of the farm are irrigated.

The Gala yield is very consistent at 40-50 tonnes/ha, but Jazz, due to canker problems, varies from 22 to 40 tonnes/ha, but the newer orchards had a better yield build-up. The frost damage was severe in the lowest orchard. The Egremont Russet planted in 1996 crops at 32-36 tonnes/ha. Clive uses ATS as a thinner on the Russets, with an application at first bloom and a second at first fruitlet stage.

When discussing Delbard Estivale and its propensity for bruising, Clive said that he uses calcium and Seniphos applications to toughen the skin. The variety crops consistently at 35 tonnes/ha.

The Envy orchard was planted in 2011 and produced 69 tonnes/ha in 2015, cropping consistently at around 50-60 tonnes/ha. The variety is growing in the same area as a Jazz orchard and, with a naturally larger fruit, has a head-start over Jazz.

Passing the Conference pears on the way down to the lower levels, Clive said that he has found frost damage of 5% to 100%, but it’s a game of ‘wait and see’ as the pears may well come through the frost. Clive and his family have a long history of growing pears successfully – the pears seen on the walk were planted in 1985 and regularly yield 35 tonnes/ha. Some rows have been sprayed with Brevis.

Revealing an interesting story about the site of his cherries, Clive said the site is believed to have once been a Roman vineyard and one can still see the contours of the terracing that would have been part of the vineyard structure.

The Summersun cherries were planted in 2002 and are now under 9m-wide tunnels erected in 2004/05. Clive has subsequently added the varieties Colney, Penny, Regina and Sweetheart. All the cherries were protected before the frosts and north winds came and Clive believes there is a very big crop.

Commenting on the hazards of growing fruit close to the village of Coxheath, Clive said that the site is well away from the main farm activities and a lack of fruit in some tunnels was attributed to local people who had discovered the location and been found to have picked cherries and sold them to local shops.

Next on the farm walk the visitors saw four new ‘club’ pear varieties grown for Worldwide Fruit Ltd. The first – Celina/QTee – is a blush-coloured European pear, discovered in Norway. The other three varieties are interspecific – Piqa Boo is the brand name for the cultivar PremP009, which was bred by Plant and Food Research in New Zealand. It was bred conventionally, combining traits from both European and Asian pears. Piqa Boo is the first in what is expected to be a series of ‘Piqa’ brand interspecific pears. Prevar is licensing the rights to grow, market and sell these new varieties around the world.

Piqa® brand fruits are conventional hybrids of European, Japanese and Chinese pears. They have interesting and novel flavours, some of which have not been found in pears before, including tropical fruit, tropical pear, melon, coconut and plum, as well as recognizable European pear flavours. Acid levels are generally low or are balanced with high sweetness. These attributes are often maintained over a long period of cold air storage and shelf-life; for some this can be up to six months followed by three weeks of shelf-life.

The Piqa Reo cultivar is a third-generation interspecific pear of complex pedigree. The fruit has a short pyriform shape with a block red colour and small brown lenticels. At harvest the fruits are crisp and juicy, with low acidity and slightly sweet.

Papple was developed in New Zealand as a hybrid of two European and Asian pears. Despite its looks and name, the Papple isn’t related to apples.

Clive told the EKFS group that he has used the Darwin blossom thinner on his new pears and achieved 14 tonnes/ha in 2015, and estimates 20 tonnes/ha in 2017. These new pear varieties are marketed to M&S and Waitrose.

Clive summarised the potential – Celina/QTee looks promising with good yield build-up but he is not so sure of Piqa Reo due to its fruit size and yield. Papple is better cropping than Reo but is awkward to train. Piqa Boo looks promising, due to its eating quality and potential yields but Clive is not sure that his soils are good enough for the planting/training system adopted. The planting/training system relies on bending the leader over into a horizontal position and selecting several suitable shoots as upright fruiting units, creating a ‘super spindle’ format.

The plums grown are mostly Victoria with some Opal and Marjorie. The Opal has been the worst affected by frost. The Marjorie plums appear to be unscathed and the Victoria is generally good and will need thinning.

The apricots survived all but the last frost event that has decimated the crop, despite using a Frost Buster. Clive said that, although the bottom of the Apricot plantation had suffered frost in past years, he had never in seven years had a complete loss of crop.

Driverless tractor demonstration

Fendt fruit tractor dealer N.P Seymour Ltd has been trialling the Fendt ProbotIQ Xpert driverless tractor system. This system is now entering commercial use on two farms in Kent – Amsbury Farm and another in north Kent. EKFS members saw a demonstration of the driverless tractor mowing an orchard at Amsbury Farm.

The Fendt Xpert system from Precision Makers is an ‘add-on’ for any Fendt tractor with Vario transmission. It integrates with the existing Fendt electronics to allow the tractor to drive and operate autonomously. It uses patented Teach and Playback technology that is very easy to use. Programming the system is simple, using just a ‘Teach’ button to record a route. The task of driving, mowing and spraying can then start. The system records every detail of the steering, accelerating, mowing, spraying etc, multiple times per second. Pressing the ‘Stop’ button finishes the recording and programming of the route. Hundreds of routes and tasks can be programmed. To start a recorded route the ‘operator’ simply selects the appropriate one from the screen and drives the tractor to the starting point. The operator then presses ‘Go’ and the tractor will repeat the recorded route exactly as programmed.

Dr Michelle Fountain of NIAB EMR gave a short presentation highlighting the role that native pollinating insects play in tree fruit quality. She identified suitable habitats and discussed how to improve the local landscapes for pollinators, in particular solitary bees.

Tim Lacey, Bayer’s Campaign Manager for Horticulture, updated EKFS members on an EAMU for the much needed control of woolly aphid. Tim described Movento Top as a two-way systemic insecticide based on spirotetramat.

The evening was completed with a buffet supper sponsored by Worldwide Fruit Ltd and a vote of thanks to Clive came from EKFS Chairman Russell Graydon.

by John Guest.