With the right support from government, retailers and continued investment in new technologies, English Apples & Pears (EAP) has an ambitious vision to make 60 per cent of all apples on UK supermarket shelves British by 2030, up from 42 per cent currently. Produce Business UK takes a closer look at what a greater volume of a wider variety of locally grown, affordable, healthy, snacking apples would mean for retailers and their shoppers, and how it can be achieved.
More volume, wider variety
EAP’s strategy is designed to help British growers increase their market share by delivering the high quality and tasty apples and pears that British consumers want.
Firstly, that means retailers and their shoppers would benefit from the introduction of a wider range of apples with preferred eating attributes – red or bi-coloured, juicy, crunchy and sweet, EAP’s Operations Director Sarah Calcutt tells PBUK.
Added to that, these modern, multi-purpose dessert apples would grow well under the UK climate, have better disease-resistance and store well.
This, Calcutt reveals, would take availability of British apples into a post-Easter sales window; extending the marketplace and giving the industry more scope to sell a greater volume. With 192,000 tonnes of British apples produced in 2018, a 20 per cent increase over the next 10 years represents a strong commitment.
“The UK has moved into growing Gala, Braeburn and lots of other interesting red dessert varieties, like Jazz,” Calcutt explains.
“Now there are lots of varietal options for growers to produce more fruit per hectare. There are some really great varieties coming through.”
Calcutt says such varieties include: Envy, Sweetie, Evelina, Red Prince and Magic Star, also known as Kentish Kiss, when retailed in Tesco.
“Magic Star has a really good marketing plan,” points out Calcutt. “It’s a variety that’s grown Europe-wide and it’s going international, which means you can have a 12-month sales programme. It grows in great, high-quality volumes and it stores really well, so it’s delivering for both growers and consumers.
“The hunt is on for that kind of variety – that grows well, in good volume, at a low rate of input, which stores well and has a long sales window.”
Already, British apple sales have grown by 40 per cent in volume since 2009 thanks to this varietal shift. With continued investment, Robert Rendall, EAP Promotional Committee Member and Peake Fruit Managing Director, believes the industry will go on delivering what consumers want.
“We look at consumer trends, and we know that generally people want red, juicy, crunchy and sweet apples,” Rendall explains.
“Growers are continuing to invest in new orchards and new varieties in order to deliver that uniquely delicious Great British apple. We need Government to deliver bespoke R&D funding in order to speed up that investment, helping us to grow more of the apples that people want.”
Local production, better flavour
A larger supply of British apples also would help address Brexit-related challenges with regards to food availability in the UK, where food comes from and what it will be worth.
“There is a very big swell of support for British, and we really welcome it,” Calcutt states. “We’re going to need to feed our own population in next few years.
“This is about providing healthy, locally grown food for our population. Retailers will have a supply base of growers with whom they have a good relationship on their doorstep."
Ali Capper, EAP’s Executive Chair, agrees: “More and more people love apples and want to buy British, and we’re determined to grow our industry to help as many people as possible enjoy the fruit they love.”
Added to that, Calcutt says the British maritime climate impacts positively on the flavour of home-grown apples to create a point of difference.
“We have a slightly longer, slower growing season than other countries, which imparts good flavour in the fruit,” she affirms.
“This campaign will continue to deliver a consistent message that British apples are high quality. They’re affordable and, thanks to our maritime climate, taste better than apples from anywhere else.”
Healthy, convenient snack
As well as planting varieties that appeal from a flavour perspective, EAP is closely following market trends to design its consumption promotions around key consumer demands.
“There’s a huge interest in ‘Britishness,’ and health is high on the agenda,” notes Capper. “We know consumers are seeking out products that are good for the environment and easy to eat on the go. Great British Apples tick all the boxes.”
The plan therefore is to promote British apples as the ideal healthy, convenient snack. To that end, EAP is continuing its work with marketing specialists Richmond & Towers, who will deliver strategic direction and day-to-day press office operations.
“We’re looking at how apples address key trends,” Calcutt reveals. “The apple is the ultimate portable snack and under 100 calories. It’s quite a gift to the health conscious.
“This campaign is very much about how convenient it is to take an apple with you ... and how it’s good for you.”
To back this up, Calcutt discloses that EAP is compiling a “big body” of research. “There are lots of questions our consumers are asking: How are apples good for you? Are they high in fibre? Are they good for your teeth? and so on. And we have the answers.”
EAP is also working with social media influencers who are sampling British apples and sharing lifestyle shots of on-the-go snacking.
“If you look at our Instagram account, you’ll see high traffic,” Calcutt says. “One of our supporters took British apples with him on a modelling shoot, which got great traction. For Generation Z, this is a lifestyle they aspire to.”
And while recipes will not be the primary focus of the campaign, Calcutt notes that EAP already has many “very good recipes” in its marketing collateral.
These suggest how consumers can use apples throughout three meals a day, and tap into healthy snacking (Jazz) and versatility (Bramley).
To further drive shoppers to choose and support British apples, EAP will be rolling out promotions targeted to specific consumer groups and their interests.
“We’re looking at a campaign which will face a range of consumers: Millennials, Gen X, Gen Z, and how we’re going to reach them on different platforms,” Calcutt explains.
“For example, when it comes to healthy eating and healthy ageing, we’ll be following different trends and using different wording.”
To that end, EAP will commission surveys, talking to UK consumers about their purchasing drivers for British apples.
EAP is also debating on how to engage with the environmentally conscious consumer.
“We haven’t made a decision on how we’ll quantify that message beyond saying British apples are home-grown and have not travelled a great distance,” informs Calcutt. “It’s something we’re discussing in our board meetings.”
Detailed purchase-point information
At the point of purchase, EAP will continue to deliver meaningful information via its retail partners to help distinguish British apples and their added value.
“We have been doing a huge amount of work with the retailers through EAP’s grower board and our promotional marketing committee,” Calcutt reports.
“It has really yielded results, but we want to do more.”
One output of the retail work has seen Marks & Spencer include the words ‘Best Cooking Apple’ on its PLU stickers for Bramley apples.
Plus, Calcutt says Ocado has introduced “really brilliant” drop-down banner adverts about ‘Great British Apples’ that detail the health benefits of apples, and the distinct characteristics of different varieties.
“EAP is also sharing [with retailers] our marketing collateral and recipes for Great British Apples,” Calcutt adds.
Modern growing techniques, improved productivity
At a grower level, new technologies, modern growing systems and new varieties are being researched and implemented to increase supply.
Chris Baker, a director at grower Wye Fruit, explains: “We will continue to invest in new, advanced approaches to enable us to grow more of the best tasting apples in the world, and deliver significant environmental benefits at the same time.”
Specifically speaking, Calcutt says the industry is investing in technology to store apples for longer, and looking at growing systems that don’t require ladders for harvesting.
Many growers are investing in labour-saving devices such as small carriages that carry bins around the orchard, as well as trailers and platforms with conveyers to reduce worker stress and raise productivity.
Additionally, the industry is searching for varieties that are cheaper to grow and more environmentally friendly because of better disease resistance, as well as varieties that present fruit better for faster picking and reduced labour costs.
Calcutt says there is also a “huge amount” of research into synchronising the pollination of trees by having the correct number of insects in the orchards at the right time. This would save growers money by enabling fruit to mature at the same rate and to be picked together.
Ultimately, it would ensure the apples delivered to the store are all at the same level of maturity.
Limitations of funding, labour
All this requires investment, however, which is why EAP is lobbying for the continuation of both match funded investment schemes and Producer Organisation (PO) funding.
“We have reassurance from Government that they will commit to POs until the end of 2022,” Calcutt notes.
“As for what comes next, there’s a lot of debate and discussion. We’ve had some fairly positive indications that strategic industry investment schemes will be possible.
“Investment in collaborative R&D is the way forward. The PO scheme has absolutely transformed the fruit farms that have been involved, although it has had its challenges.”
Indeed, Capper describes funding as “vital” for the longevity of the sector.
“[Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] Michael Gove has promised to put POs at the top of his list,” she says. “It’s a very simple scheme that’s delivering great bang for buck.”
But without access to labour, Calcutt warns that none of the above will matter.
“This absolutely hinges on our access to people that can come and work,” she stresses. “Or we will not be able to pick the crop.”
In an average year, EAP states the British horticultural industry employs 80,000 people in harvesting-related jobs. This year, there was a deficit of 10,000 workers.
“We’re asking Government for an immigration strategy which allows us to access skilled, seasonal workers, and for an extension of the [new, pilot] Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme for non-EU workers.”
Moreover, Calcutt stresses that the longer-term opportunity is being overlooked.
“We are in danger of losing a generation of packhouse managers, line managers etc.,” she points out. “There is no college course in the UK that is matching what we need for the physical jobs on the ground.”
To address the issue, EAP commissioned a labour survey, which it has sent to Defra, in addition to requesting a consultation on labour skills.
Although there are constraints on what can be announced at this point, Calcutt believes the industry is “getting somewhere”.
“Clearly, there is much still to do, but a lot is going on, and we already have a really good, ongoing dialogue with Defra,” she says. “We are definitely being listened to, and our data is being looked at in the right way.”