For 85th year, National Fruit Show set to feature the best from British growers

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Apples, pears, soft fruit, nuts and cider will be displayed, discussed and celebrated at this year’s 85th National Fruit Show to be held in Detling on 24-25 October.

NAT FRUIT 4Providing insights into the show, the fruit industry at large, what farmers face pre-Brexit, as well as how UK fruit faces marketing challenges due to discount stores and online buys, is Chair of the National Fruit Show, Sarah Calcutt (left), in this exclusive interview with Produce Business UK. 

How did the fruit show all begin? How has it evolved? What were some of its founding principles? 

The first show was in 1933 when Tom Walton, the fruit salesman of his day, persuaded 35 of the area's best growers to exhibit their fruit at his house, Walton Hall Marden, so that the prize-winning apples and pears could find their way to buyers at Selfridges in Central London. 

The overarching principles of the show are the same now as then: We showcase the best of British fruit, we connect farmers with new technology, facilitate knowledge exchange, networking and, our modern-day addition is that we meet our educational aims by raising funds to support our rapidly growing education programme, engaging with over 5,000 school children each year.

Your program explains that The Fruit Show is run by "The Marden Fruit Show Society (MFSS), a registered charity run by a voluntary committee who represent many different facets of the fruit industry.” What are the various facets of the fruit industry?  

The show includes competition classes for apples, pears, soft fruit, nuts, apple-based juice and, new this year is, cider. Our committee is made up of growers, marketing agents, PR experts and representatives of a lot of the supply companies like tractor dealers, and agronomists. None of the committee is paid, including myself. We do have three part-time employees — they are completely amazing and very hard working: Maria Clarke is the Show Manager; Norma Tompsett manages the show competition, and Sam Smith runs our incredible education programme.

In terms of numbers, how many growers, farmers, associations are involved in The Fruit Show?  

We estimate that we engage 80 per cent of the top fruit industry in the event each day. 

When the show started, it was just for the Marden and District. We are now truly national and also have a number of overseas exhibitors. The show used to be small, a group of locals meeting in an agent's barn to impress a buyer. Well, we are still the same really, but we now occupy three halls at the Kent showground; we have something like 130 trade stands; 70m of competition fruit, and this year prizes are worth around £20,000.

Who are some of the sponsors of the show? 

Four major sponsors underpin the show delivery: These ensure that we can run an effective show management team. They are Avalon Produce Ltd., Agrovista, BASF and NP Seymour.

We also have dinner sponsors Orchard World and Hadlow College. Finally, packaging for the show fruit comes from Produce Packaging. We then have more than a dozen sponsors who support the individual classes. Since it is our 85th show, we also have a special sponsor, Biddenden Vineyards, who are going to let us celebrate success with some British bubbly this year.

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Your website says the centrepiece of the show is the largest competitive display of commercially grown top and soft fruit staged in the UK. That sounds impressive, as well as intriguing. Could you explain a little about that? 

It's a really iconic part of our event now. The competition is the heart of everything that we do. One entry is three single-layer trays of fruit. These are picked and packed against a strict criteria. Essentially, each set of three trays have fruit that is the same size (within 2mm), the same shape, the same colour and the same quality. The really good entries produce three exactly matched trays. 

We have a team of almost 50 judges who decipher the submissions based on internal and external defects, freedom from pest and disease, as well as uniformity of appearance.

Then for the rewards: If a dessert fruit entry scores more than 85/100, it then goes into Britain's tastiest apple class. For soft fruit, the judges follow similar criteria as the top fruit category, but it is based on matched punnets of fruit.

As a B2B publication focused on produce and trends around it, we are really interested in what you have witnessed regarding fruit over the years in the UK. Any new varieties? New packaging? Challenges to the fruit industry. 

Well, for a start, I reckon I've only missed eight fruit shows in my lifetime. When I was little, the show was in Tompkinsons Yard in Marden. Later becoming the National Fruit Show and moving to Detling more than 25 years ago means in that regard it has changed enormously. 

Originally, the fruit was displayed in wicker baskets, and fruit was sold by the bushel. Over the past 85 years, all the varieties we now grow have actually been launched; all the packaging formats we now sell in have been showcased; the techniques we now use in orchards and packhouses have all been displayed and discussed. 

What’s more, the agronomy and plant protection companies now have launch products and services. 

This year, we will have new varieties available for tasting; we will inevitably be discussing the impact of Brexit and trade difficulties. We will also consider how we will get labour, what will happen to our marketplace, and how we will be procuring industry inputs from Europe. 

How many people are expected to attend the show this year? 

Since we are a free show (exhibitors pay to take a stand, and the finances are managed so we are free to visitors), it is hard to tell how many actually come. We reckon that we will have something between 3,000-4,000 visitors over the two days. For the dinner itself, we are expecting 300 attendees.

Could you reveal anything about this year’s agenda?

The show is being opened by Minette Batters, The National Farmers’ Union President.  We also have guests from the Fruiterers Livery. What’s more, The Bishop of Dover will bless the fruit, and we will have major retail and industry players visiting the show and at the dinner, too.

We don't have a conference programme. However, there are two opportunities to speak. At the press conference where myself and Ali Capper, the NFU Hort Board Chair and EAP Executive Chair, as well as the Rt Hon Michael Jack CBE, our Show President, will address the wider industry issues, as well as the show’s successes, launches and achievements.

Batters will be addressing some of the wider industry challenges. She has been lobbying hard with the whole NFU team on behalf of the industry, and we are hoping she will have some answers on the major problems around Purchase Order funding, labour, export, import of inputs, etc. 

We badly need some information on what next year is going to look like for us.

NAT FRUIT 3What fruits will be represented there, and has this changed over the years?  

We are historically a hard fruit show: apples and pears. Over the years, we have added in soft fruit, nuts, juice and now cider. For a while, we also had tomatoes (in partnership with the TGA) and also pumpkins, but these failed to take off.

Do you notice any shifts in general in the UK with regards to the fruit market?

The retail mix is the biggest change. With the rise of Aldi and Lidl, as well as online sales, there is a very rapidly changing retail environment for marketing desks to navigate. Foodservice is also changing very quickly. There are very valuable relationships which are driving product development for a wide range of outlets. 

For the after-show event, you have traditionally taken the competition fruit "on the road," reportedly as part of the Society's aims to educate the public about British Fruit. That sounds like a wonderful initiative. How does that all work in practise?

Historically, we had an amazing team who, already exhausted from staging the show, packed all the fruit up and went to an event in another part of the country, set it all up again and spent their weekend talking to the public about Great British Fruit. It was a completely amazing period of activity, and we went to some amazing places.

More recently, we have focused on helping address food poverty, engaging with homeless charities, food banks and cooking projects. Various members of my team head off with boxes of fruit to city farms. We also give fruit to shelter, glean, school food networks, and about 25 per cent of it will go to our own education programme, who will use it in the classroom programme. 

Could you explain a little about your education programme and how it came about?

Five years ago, we had an opportunity to work with Sam Smith, who has developed the programme. It has grown from engaging with hundreds of children to thousands. There is now a team of three who travel throughout the South East and London delivering a curriculum-linked programme in classrooms, introducing pupils to how fruit is grown, what happens in an orchard throughout the year. They juice apples, eat multiple varieties, talk about healthy eating, and try some apple crisps as an alternative to fried potato ones.

Sam is a super keen, really fabulous teacher. The feedback we get from schools is utterly wonderful. Children that never eat fruit love apples by the end of the lesson. Their parents get a letter explaining what the children have done in the day, and a tree is planted at the school as a lasting legacy. It is something that we are all enormously proud of being able to nurture and support. We have some very generous support from industry leaders in AC Goatham & Son and Avalon Fruit Ltd., who ensure we continue to grow in our ability to reach more children.

What are some of the challenges facing the fruit industry in recent years? 

It is farming. It is always a challenge. We have the labour challenge, the plant protection product challenge, the weather/climate change challenge, the cost of production vs. the need for cheap food challenge, the politics challenge (not many fruit farmers voted to leave), and the trade/import pressures challenge.

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Are there any other specific areas of the show that you would like to highlight? New initiatives? Things to watch out for?

Cider is new. We have also gone to the public for a vote via social media, which is a big change for us. All other competitions have been staged within the halls during the show, and we have nine finalists and a good panel of industry experts who have the lovely job of tasting them. We don't have the mainstream versions in there. Instead, we have a great spread of artisan, farm-produced and a few larger British brands representing. It is going to be very interesting to see how it turns out. We have a number of new stands, including more from Europe than ever before. We also have a new layout we are trialing to improve the walking flow around the event. The President’s reception is also bigger this year too with an extended VIP list.

Specifically for 2018, what can we expect?

It's a celebration this year. We have a huge cake on order, British bubbly. There is also a great band and a dance floor at the dinner for the first time. 

Also with the hot weather, we have some amazing flavoured fruit, so the tastiest apple competition will be really interesting.

It's a remarkable thing to have an event that has served its members and the industry consistently for 85 years. Finally, the spread of people across the industry helps keep the people working on this event moving forward and keeps us on our toes when things change.

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