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Under 40s Fruit Growers rebrands as NextGen

In June, the networking and educational group formerly known as the ‘Under 40s Fruit Growers’ rebranded itself as ‘NextGen’. Rachel Anderson reports on how this reinvention is part of a wider global plan to reach out to more talented young growers.

Bringing the industry together

When fifth-generation fruit grower Ben Bardsleyjoined the family business some six years ago, he swiftly initiated an ambitious, long-term, investment programme that is ensuring that the firm, Bardsley England, remains successful and sustainable for generations to come. More than £5m, for example, has been invested in its supply chain, including its storage, grading and packing facilities. £millions of investment is planned for the next few years. In his new role as chairman of the group formerly known as the Under 40s Fruit Growers, this innovative grower is clearly applying the same forward-thinking approach. Having only been elected in February, Ben has already renamed the group NextGen and launched an ambitious strategy for this important organisation.

Speaking in June, at the official launch of NextGen at the London Produce Show, Ben explained: “We have now gone through a change to make our group a lot bigger, a lot more meaningful, and to make our membership global. When I was made chairman in February this year I decided to rebrand the group – making it more tangible. We didn’t like the way that ‘Under 40s’ sounded quite limiting – 40 is an age and we don’t want to be limiting. So, we have rebranded to incorporate what we are.” Ben revealed that he and his committee are aiming to see NextGen’s membership increase from its current 150 to 350 members. “I think you will all agree that our industry, as great as it is, is very fractured. Because we supply a home market and we don’t really export, there are a lot of competitors. But, everybody has got young people in common. Every single business needs young people to create what we need to do.” He added: “We want between 10% and 20% international members, so today [at the London Produce Show] is a great platform.” Ben also announced the group’s ambitious plan to visit New Zealand in 2021. He said: “They are doing some fascinating stuff and we can’t wait to educate our members about what’s going on over there.”

Ben noted that the bar has been set very high following the group’s recent adventurous trips. “The Under 40s was founded by Professor John Hudson in 1967. In 1981 Clive Baxter took the group to Belgium – the first overseas trip. In 2003, the membership reached 100; in 2017 it reached 150. And then in 2017 the bar was raised when Charlie Dunn took us to South Africa. And then this year we went to Chile. So, you can see that the bar was being set higher and higher.”

Part of the new strategy will see NextGen host a big ball for 750 people at a venue in London next year. Also in store for next year is a group visit to Herefordshire and another one to Scotland, an area from which NextGen is keen to recruit new members. The group also now boasts a set of core values, which spell out the word ‘fruits’. They include:

  • Fun – “The most important thing is that we are a group of young people who enjoy having fun. Through the fun we can begin the great friendships that we need to make this group powerful,” said Ben.
  • Respect– “There are a lot of people in the group, so we need to respect one another.”
  • Understanding, which includes educating members about the wide-ranging fruit industry
  • Inspire– ensuring that, when NextGen members return to their home business, they’ve been inspired by other businesses in the industry.
  • Trust– Ben says: “Like any organisation you’ve got to have a lot of trust. The committee has a lot of trust in its members.”
  • Sustainability– “We have to make sure that this group is sustainable for the future, not just for the two years that I am chairman.”

As it casts its net across the globe, NextGen (#nextgenfruitgroup) will be executing a powerful social media strategy that will see some 700 posts online over the next two years. Furthermore, the group has now incorporated a charity into NextGen. Ben declared: “This is really important for us because we want to give back to the fruit industry. We will do this by promoting the fruit industry in education and funding people through that to bring them into the fruit sector.”

Farm and vineyard visits

The day following the official launch of NextGen saw members of the group visit Bardsley England’s packhouse and some of the firm’s top-fruit orchards. There, they could see for themselves how, under Ben’s leadership, the pioneering top business, which grows apples, pear, plums, apricots and cherries across 17 sites in Kent, looks to the future by boldly investing in state-of-the-art technologies.

For example, the group has this year teamed up with cutting-edge remote monitoring specialist 30MHz. The Dutch firm, which has already successfully helped many UK glasshouse growers with their crops, installs portable sensors into crops. It then uses the Cloud to store and transport information to its agri-data platform, Zensie. This allows growers to be alerted, via their smartphones, to those environmental conditions that could create pest and disease outbreaks. Bardsley’s production director Paul Smith said: “We have started a partnership with 30MHz, looking at microclimates, weather data, soil conditions, all the different elements linked to growing crops. One of the main reasons for doing this is to try and understand the factors that give rise to incidences of disease. This initiative is based on some of the learning that they have had in protected cropping for ornamentals.”

Paul and farm manager Rob Wickham noted that they need to get to the bottom of how they can get rid of canker, which has been a problem for the farm recently. They suggested that the issue could be coming from tree nursery stock. “Getting good quality plants is an industry-wide problem and we are keen to raise the issue and want to do something about it,” they said. Continually problem-solving and looking to the future, the firm is also investing in hail nets as England’s weather patterns become more extreme. The tour groups also learned that Bardsley England is about to venture into the English sparkling wine business and has invested in its first vineyard – 5ha of Chardonnay.

Vines were also the topic of conversation in the afternoon. Following lunch in Sissinghurst, the NextGen group visited the award-winning Biddenden Vineyards. There, the visitors were shown around the 23-acre vineyard, which is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, by third-generation grape grower, Tom Barnes. He explained that they grow 11 varieties, including its flagship variety, Ortega, Pinot Noir and Dornfelder.

Throughout the tour, the top-fruit growers in the group could see many similarities between growing apples and producing grapes. For example, they learned that, like new orchards, newer vine plantings are planted closer together. Furthermore, vines, like other fruit crops, are highly susceptible to damage from frost and spotted wing drosophila (SWD). And, like top-fruit crops, grapevines have some average years and some excellent years. For example, last year’s Gamay Noir crop was so exceptional that Biddenden Vineyards has been able to produce the new Gamay Noir 2018 red wine. Tom said: “We grow ten rows (0.2ha) of it. Usually, we use it in our pink sparkling wines because it’s very acidic, but last year we were able to make a still wine out of it, similar to Pinot Noir.”

The Gamay Noir was one of a handful of Biddenden’s wines that members of the NextGen group sampled inside the winery. There, they learned from Tom that, like Bardsley England, the vineyard has full control over its supply chain. “We grow the grapes, make the wine, bottle it, label it, pack it and distribute it.” NextGen members were given many insights, ideas and inspirations into how successful fruit businesses are managed. As Ben said: “We are trying to find a group of people who always say ‘we can’. We provide the events that provide further insightful education, through the trips that we provide, as well as through literature and social media platforms.”

The busy day concluded with food, games of rounders, and drinks. As Ben said: “NextGen is all about people having fun, getting together, having a conversation over a beer and being excited about being part of a great team.”