Camellia-Bardsley partnership to propel agri-tech innovation

Gill McShane

Earlier this month, Bardsley England , the UK’s second-largest apple supplier, was acquired by global agriculture group Camellia Plc – a grower-supplier of tea, nuts, avocados, blueberries, maize and timber in Africa, India, Bangladesh and Brazil. The tie-up is designed to allow both businesses to spearhead development and technology projects to transform how they grow food for future generations. PBUKinvestigates.

Bardsley England produces nearly 18,000 tonnes of fruit per year across 850 hectares in Kent, which cover 27 orchards planted with apples, pears, cherries, and plums. The business utilises technology such as micro-climate sensors to monitor for adverse weather and wet leaf sensors to give early indication of pests and disease. The firm also uses a combination of trailer-mounted machine vision devices and remote satellite technology to improve yield predictions and crop management.

As a forward-thinking business and an innovator in the use of agri-tech, Bardsley England had been looking for some time to form a strategic partnership to fund the next stage of its agricultural developments.

Equally, Camellia was eager to expand into new produce areas and regions, especially within the UK. The partnership seemed inevitable; considering both companies apply a similar approach to agri-tech and have a shared appetite for growth.

“There is a huge opportunity for both businesses to collaborate and develop some strategic and streamlined innovation within the fresh produce supply chain, so watch this space,” Ben Bardsley, CEO of Bardsley England, tells PBUK. “Forming a partnership with a company that has an aligned appreciation for global food production and supply has been a goal for some time.”

The union presented an ideal opportunity for Camellia, which is London (AIM) listed and employs 78,000 staff in its agriculture operations around the world. Currently, Camellia is one of the major suppliers of tea to the UK but has limited exposure in terms of its fresh fruit and nuts, which are predominantly sold in Europe, the US and Asia.

“Both businesses are focused on bearer crops such as fruit, nut and avocados trees,” points out Graham Mclean, Managing Director of Agriculture at Camellia. “Also, we both utilise a wide range of agri-tech techniques and this knowhow will be shared across the group.”

Ben Bardsley says “We will use the capital injection to fund a packhouse extension, investment into the development and implementation of technology, robotics and automation within the supply chain and orchards.”

Future investment plans

Under the deal, Camellia has purchased an 80 per cent stake in Bardsley England for £15.7 million (m). Camellia will also make a loan to Bardsley of £9.3m. In addition to strengthening Bardsley’s balance sheet, the investment by Camellia will support growth and ensure the business is able to invest further in developing its packing operations and extending its orchards.

Having previously been a family-run entity, Bardsley England took this opportunity to simplify the ownership structure by reducing its stake in the business. With a raise of £18.9 million of capital, the firm will maintain investments in both its packhouse and farming operations; ensuring the business rests in the top tier of the fresh produce industry, and continues to spearhead development and technology for future growth.

“We will use the capital injection to fund a packhouse extension, investment into the development and implementation of technology, robotics and automation within the supply chain and orchards, along with investments into our trees, planting and new varietal innovation,” reveals Bardsley.

In particular, the packhouse operations are to be expanded and made increasingly automated through robotics. Orchard development of any fallow land will be prioritised too, followed by an annual replanting programme to ensure that orchard age profiles are maintained for optimal production. 

Benefits for buyers

These changes will have benefits for buyers of Bardsley England’s fruit, including major supermarkets in the UK. By working with Camellia on agri-tech development, the firm anticipates that it will reap improved efficiencies, reduced costs, improved knowledge of carbon sequestration and reduced emission profiles through the adoption of regenerative agriculture techniques.

“Bardsley England has a direct approach with our customers, and this acquisition strengthens that model,” Bardsley explains. “It will drive further efficiency across our packing and growing operations to enhance our customer relationships, and directly offer additional value to those customers.”

Further innovation

Looking to the future, Bardsley believes the partnership will enable Bardsley England to continue to stand out on the UK produce market as the firm paves the way within the industry for technology and innovation.

“Our customers benefit from the knowledge that we drive incremental changes throughout every part of our business, resulting in quality and value,” Bardsley comments. “This can be demonstrated in our growing practices being shifted to regenerative agriculture in order to grow our fruit in a better way; resulting in fruit that is better for us with less impact on the planet. With investment into Bardsley England we are able to continue to fuse technology with nature to transform how we grow for future generations.”

In this vein, over the past 18 months Bardsley England has incubated its own in-house tech arm called Bx Technology . The focus of Bx Tech has been to give full visibility of fresh produce from orchard to supply chain. By digitising the growing operation, Bx Tech helps to manage costs and labour spend, improve yields, and enrich soils. The idea is to make data-led decisions and seek incremental improvements to produce better fruit in a more sustainable way.

“For generations we have been reliant on historical know-how but in a world where we are at the mercy of the weather and where climate change is having an enormous impact on not only the quality of our fruit but also how we grow it, we need technology to give us the ability to make data-led decisions – for the simple reason that we cannot manage what we cannot measure,” points out Bardsley. “By creating metrics we can reward our growers for their positive impact on the environment too.”

Bardsley England will continue to work closely with Bx Technology to spearhead advancement and change for both the industry and the planet for future generations by transforming how the business grows fruit.



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