James Smith, aged 39, is continuing his family’s tradition of growing top fruit at Loddington Farm in Kent. Back in 1890, his great-great grandfather, Fred, produced the first commercial planting of Bramley apples on the picturesque farm in Linton, near Maidstone. More than a century later, James reveals how the market for top fruit has changed since his family first invested in the cooking variety – arguably best-served piping hot inside a pastry crust.
James Smith: Yes, but only a small amount. The biggest change to our business over the last few years has been our reduction in Bramley production. We used to be predominantly Bramley growers but we have now reduced our Bramley production to just half an acre (0.2 hectares). We used to grow at least 20 hectares of Bramley just seven or eight years ago but, for many reasons, Bramley sales have been declining. For instance, Northern Ireland has invested a lot of money in new Bramley orchards so its level of production has increased. So those who sell or process the fruit are not buying as much from English growers. In 2013, for example, we were picking Bramley but there was still two months of fruit in store.
What is now the main apple variety that you produce and why?
JS: Our main variety is Gala. We grow about 35 hectares – or a thousand tonnes – of Gala. It’s one of the varieties that the supermarkets will have on the shelves 52 weeks a year. It’s a relatively nice variety to grow and it stores well. It’s our “banker.” We have been growing this apple since 1992 and have been planting Gala right up until 2013, when we planted two hectares of it to start to replace some of the original orchards from the 1990s. But we are not trying to increase our volumes now – we are improving the quality of what we are already producing.
Do you grow any apple varieties other than Gala?
JS: Yes. Growing a wide range of varieties enables us to supply our supermarket customers all year round. It’s about offering people a choice and having a sensible portfolio of varieties. We grow, for example, Jonagold; a processing apple for juice, Cox, and some other red desserts including Braeburn and Spartan. Cox, a traditional English variety, does not yield as well as some of the newer varieties like Gala – it’s quite a challenging variety to grow and store. There’s also no longer a premium price for Cox. It's a tricky apple but it still has a place on the market. Spartan is quite an important red apple for us as an alternative to key product lines like Gala or Braeburn. It just goes on the supermarket shelves as a general red apple.
Are you also growing or trialling any newer, “up and coming” varieties?
JS: Yes, we are growing a yellow variety named Opal and a red type of Pinova named Evelina – a relatively new, reddish apple. There’s only about six or seven English growers growing them at the moment.
Evelina is a sweet, high sugar apple and it can store very well. We get good yields from it but the fruit size tends to be a bit large, which is not always suitable for the UK market because the retailers tend to prefer smaller apples.
Opal is supposed to be relatively resistant to [the disease] scab and as it’s yellow it’s an English alternative to Golden Delicious. It has a very strong flavour and is a very moreish apple. We are growing it based on its eating quality – but there’s a job to be done to change people’s perception of yellow apples. Planting only started two years ago so we will be picking a sensible Opal crop this year (2015).
Have you invested in any new technologies on your farm in addition to the new varieties you are growing?
JS: Yes, we have planted intensive orchards that are planted on posts and wires. The trees are planted 80cm apart and grow up to 3.25cm tall. This means that there are 3,848 trees per hectare.
We also have trickle irrigation in all of our orchards and during the past couple of years we have invested in solar and wind renewable energy schemes. They generate between 15 and 20 per cent of our annual electricity usage.
Over the last five years we have also invested around £600,000 in new controlled atmosphere (CA) stores, simply because they add value to our products. There’s no point in growing miles of fruit and not being able to store it. And so by putting fruit in store you can then keep it in optimum condition and release it only when required. It’s an important part of the business. If you just grow fruit you have to be prepared to pay for commercial storage or, by putting more pressure on the market, accept lower prices.