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UK’s largest independent cane-fruit grower an inspiration to many

Sometimes, the innovations of those employed in the fruit industry are so impressive that fellow growers and packers are inspired. Certainly, a visit to Chambers in Kent is a source of inspiration for many. This berry-, currant- and stone-fruit producer is going to great lengths to ensure that consumers can enjoy sustainably grown fresh fruit throughout the year. Rachel Anderson, who visited the farm earlier this summer, reports.

Creating a leaner supply chain

As Rupert Carter, Chambers’ group technical director, tells The Fruit Grower, the business, based near Maidstone, “Grows, packs, imports and innovates.” Certainly, on arriving at Oakdene Farm, where this family business is headquartered, it’s obvious by the level of hustle and bustle that this producer is a large-scale operation. In fact, the first building that greets visitors as they drive into the site is Chambers’ new £2 million prepared fruit facility – The Fruitery. Rupert reveals that Chambers is the only specialist fruit grower in the UK to have invested in such a provision. “It was an idea we dreamed up several years ago as a way of creating a leaner supply chain and fresher fruit. Four years ago, this building was just a skeletal packaging store. Everything was gutted and, after officially opening The Fruitery earlier this year, we have already used two-thirds of the floor space.”

Staff at The Fruitery are busily preparing fruit medleys, containing freshly picked berries and grapes, for its food service industry and retailer customers. Part of the multi-million investment includes a state-of-the-art £150,000 bespoke UV line that sanitises the berries without having to wash them or get them wet. Impressively, this new facility, which achieved Grade A BRC accreditation earlier this year, also makes it possible for berries to be picked, prepared, packed and dispatched in just one day during the UK’s summer months. Happily, this shortened supply chain means that the fruits’ shelf-life can be extended by up to two days. Outside of its growing season, the business sources fruit from its farms located in Iberia, Poland, Peru and Bulgaria. Furthermore, Chambers has a network of partner growers spanning 17 countries to ensure the seamless supply of high-quality fresh berries for its customers, all year round.

Throughout the summer, berries from Chambers’ UK farms are picked for The Fruitery and put into punnets ‘whole-head’. With its many customers in mind, the business, which has been growing fruit since 1952, has quadrupled the size of its packhouse and invested in new machinery, such as an optical sorting machine and a grader. Over the last 12 months, Chambers has also created three cold storage facilities in remote locations to maximise the fruit quality and reduce wastage. Once chilled, fruit is moved by the fleet of refrigerated vehicles to the central packing site.

Fresh from the field

The largest independent cane fruit grower in the UK, Chambers specialises in growing raspberries and blackberries. It is also a key supplier of blackcurrants, redcurrants, cherries, gooseberries, strawberries, blueberries and rhubarb. On the day that The Fruit Grower visited Chambers’ Boarden Farm, where Kweli raspberries are grown, the producer had enjoyed almost three record weeks of picking, with its raspberry crop being particularly plentiful. Whilst the warm weather had certainly contributed to this good fortune, the firm’s fastidious growing practices also helped.

For example, three production systems are used to ensure a steady supply of its raspberry crop. These include the use of refrigerated plants that are chilled throughout the winter and taken outside during April when they are planted into pots. Rupert explains: “One third of our overall production is from this method of manipulated production.” The remaining two-thirds of its raspberry production is from floricane (summer-fruiting) and primocane (autumn-fruiting) canes. Raspberry varieties grown by Chambers include Paragon, Grandeur, Glen Ample, Kweli, Kwanza, Ovation, Tulameen, Bella and Charm. Bella and Charm were recently developed by NIAB EMR and the Rubus Breeding Consortium, which is chaired by the firm’s managing director, and third-generation owner, Tim Chambers. Rupert says: “Bella is the better of the two. It’s being grown quite a bit in Spain, but there’s more to be done in the UK – we’re just waiting for the plants.” As an established plant propagator, Chambers raises 1.5 million plants each year on a growing area spanning 400ha across 14 locations in Kent. The producer also has a trial site near Dartford, Kent where new varieties are tested. Rupert explains: “We are looking for something that offers a good yield, has disease resistance, is easy to pick, and has a good texture and flavour, but not necessarily the sweetest taste. A very sweet variety, for example, will have limited effect on the overall market because it will be a top-tier product. So, we are looking for quite a wide spectrum of qualities.”

Chambers’ raspberry season starts with fruit grown under glass, but its main raspberry crop is produced under polytunnels. On humid days the grower vents the tunnels to keep the air moving. Rupert explains: “We’ve had issues with the weather, and it’s affected some of the plants. We are at the stage where we are trying to pick some of the best fruit.” At this busy time of year, a team based at Chambers’ head office, and led by harvest manager Sevda Cholakova, co-ordinates where the picking should be happening. “During certain periods we have picked off the main part of the crop but left less developed parts of it, to move on to a different, stronger crop” explains Rupert.

Given that the farm has 1,200 seasonal staff, and a total of 1,500, this mammoth operation is made possible with the assistance of a fleet of seven double decker buses that help transport staff from farm to farm. The seasonal workers are also kept informed via a Facebook page that’s updated daily. As Rupert asserts: “The people are as important as the fruit and trying to get people to the right plants at the right place takes some doing.”

Growing and packing sustainably

Balancing the requirements of a growing business with the pressing, global need to produce food sustainably is a consideration that all fruit producers must be mindful of today. Chambers is successfully achieving this balance, thanks to the many environmentally friendly systems it has put in place, both on its farms and its buildings.

Rupert notes, for example, that rainwater is collected from all buildings and polytunnels and channelled into field reservoirs or tanks to irrigate crops. This initiative has been in place for the last ten years. Water-use is made as precise as possible, thanks to the use of moisture probes supplied by Soil Moisture Sense, and coir is favoured as a replacement for peat. As part of the business’ integrated pest management (IPM) programme, pesticides are used as sparingly as possible. Netting, for instance, is used on some of its crops, including raspberries and cherries, to minimise the damage from spotted wing drosophila (SWD). Bees raised by beekeepers, and bumblebees supplied in boxes by Koppert, are used to help pollinate its crops, and native plant species are currently being planted around the farms’ field boundaries to further attract pollinators. These hedgerows are also attracting other wildlife, as do the insect hotels and bird boxes that have been installed across various Chambers’ sites. Meanwhile, waste fruit is taken to a local anaerobic digester.

Chambers is also focused on ensuring that the packaging into which the fruit is placed is as sustainable as possible. Its punnets are therefore made from transparent, 80% recycled rPET, sandwiched between two layers of 10% virgin PET. This means that the packaging is recyclable, as is the cardboard that is used to transport imported fruit. This is either baled and taken to recycling or, where appropriate, reused for the onwards journey to the customer. Chambers is also now working with a dedicated recycling company to launch a dry mixed recycling initiative that will enable the recycling of certain paper and plastic materials currently used by the business. Rupert says: “We are carrying out trials now on how to better recapture the punnets, particularly the damaged ones. How do we reprocess them without going through all the recycling process?”

Throughout its buildings, Chambers uses sensor-led lighting and energy-efficient lights. Moreover, the last three years have seen solar panels installed on most buildings associated with packing activity. Currently, these panels are generating 220,000 kwh/year. Without doubt, Chambers is mindful of both the environment and the needs of its customers and the wider marketplace. Such mindfulness, coupled with its ability to invest in every aspect of the business, will continue to be a source of inspiration for other fruit-growing businesses.