Kent-based soft fruit grower-packer-distributor Chambers is planning a hands-on, interactive and educational Production Tour of the company’s largest owned berry farm and new high-care prepared fruit facility, The Fruitery, as part of the Industry Tours taking place on the final day of The London Produce Show and Conference 2019. PBUK chatted with Rupert Carter, Group Technical Director at Chambers, to find out what’s in store for attendees on Friday, June 7.
“Chambers Farms is a long-established, family-owned business based outside of Maidstone in Kent that has been in the Chambers family for three generations,” Carter begins by explaining, adding that the product mix has expanded in the last five years from raspberries, blackberries, currants and rhubarb to include cherries, blueberries and strawberries.
“It’s a business that’s been evolving for the last 10 years. It’s certainly one of the newer models of a large-scale grower working with the retailers, and it’s a company that’s looking to the future, having diversified with the establishment of The Fruitery.”
To demonstrate the company’s diverse operations, the Production Tour will be two-fold. Firstly, attendees will visit Home Farm located in Sutton at Hone, near Dartford, where members of the senior management team, including owner and managing director Tim Chambers (left), will give a tour of the largest Chambers’ owned farm. Secondly, attendees will head to the company’s headquarters at Oakdene Farm, where they will visit the £2 million prepared fruit division, The Fruitery.
“Visitors will see the two different aspects of British fruit farming today,” Carter points out. “We’ll show them a traditional soft fruit production site, as well as what we do with those berries on the prepared side in terms of processing fruit through a high-care facility. Plus we’ll share what we have learned so far since setting up The Fruitery.
“This will be useful for any visitors thinking about doing something similar, or establishing similar revenue streams, in terms of understanding what you have to consider. Retailers and buyers will find it interesting to visualise how it all fits together as well. It’s a two-way street too. We appreciate feedback, and their comments might help us also.
“The tour will show everyone the complexity of the work undertaken by the supply chain before you buy a punnet or a snack pot of berries at a supermarket. Soft fruit is notoriously challenging and fast changing. Visitors will see why it’s not so straightforward.”
Overall, Carter says the tour represents a “unique opportunity" for all. “It may not be something that we’ll do every single year, and, potentially, there will be some people in the industry who may not be aware of The Fruitery.”
To help visitors truly experience the journey taken by its fruit, Chambers will give attendees the chance to pick some fresh berries to take to The Fruitery, where they will follow all the standard procedures to produce a finished prepared product to take home.
“We are organising some fun activities in the orchards; we’ll get everyone picking berries to take to The Fruitery,” Carter notes. “Visitors will see how fast they can pick fruit compared to our trained pickers. We want to make it as interactive as possible, as that’s how people will get the most out of the tour.”
With the British summer weather notoriously unpredictable, Carter advises attendees to dress comfortably, and with sensible footwear. “It’s a farm, it’s commercial and it’s big,” he cautions.
Rupert Carter, Chambers' Group Technical Director, in the field
Chambers operates a mixture of owned and long-term leased sites covering 14 different locations across Kent. The production element of the tour will visit one of the company’s most recent sites – a 100-hectare growing area that is planted with raspberries, blackberries and strawberries in their third growing season, and complete with a coldstore and campsite for pickers.
“There has been a huge amount of work at this site,” notes Carter. “It’s a newer model of what the company would like to do going forward.”
Given the timing of the tour in June, there will be plenty of fruit in season for attendees to see both in the fields and moving through The Fruitery.
“June is a really great month for soft fruit,” Carter states. “It marks the beginning of the summer months and Wimbledon [Tennis Championships] is not far away. The production site should be at its best; we will demonstrate a quintessential British soft fruit farm.”
Both Carter and Salih Hodzhov, the Farms Director at Chambers, will explain to attendees how the production site has evolved from a very early stage, right back to when Chambers took it over from being an arable farm.
“Salih has worked with the farm for many years. He knows everything about the site, the soil and its growing conditions,” Carter says.
As well as detailing how the fruit is produced, the hosts will reveal Chambers’ use of rain water and other sustainable resources.
Packing facility at the The Fruitery
Attendees will then head south to Chambers’ main packing site near Maidstone, where the focus will be on the company’s latest business, The Fruitery, which is packing pots and punnets of ready-to-eat, fresh snacking fruit, primarily berries, for retail and foodservice customers.
“Some visitors may have already seen and sampled these berry pots at the trade show the day before [Thursday June 6], or even eaten them during the breakfast [Thought Leaders Breakfast Panel] on the Wednesday morning,” Carter points out.
“We’ll look at the two different areas of low-risk and high-care, we’ll explain the journey we’ve been on and what we’ll do as the business starts to expand, as we have expansion plans built into the building.”
Since launching in February, The Fruitery has been undergoing a period of validation that culminated in April when the facility attained BRC accreditation. The facility has started packing commercially for a UK retail customer, as well as a French/European retailer. Another UK supermarket operator is preparing to launch shortly.
“All of our retail customers have said that it’s a really nice facility that looks great,” Carter reveals. “We’re feeling quietly confident, and we can’t wait do more. We still have a massive learning curve ahead but we can use the knowledge and experience within the Chambers team which benefits from multifaceted people with different perspectives.”
Where The Fruitery stands out is its ability to receive freshly harvested fruit directly from the field that has been selected for freshness and quality. This enables Chambers to directly supply retailers and foodservice operators an own-label and high-quality product that has a longer shelf-life, local provenance and lower food miles.
“Since we’re growing on site across a number of locations and varieties, we can ‘cherry-pick’ what goes through The Fruitery on a day-to-day basis, so we can offer really great prepared berry products,” Carter explains.
“This means the consumer is going to get a better-eating soft fruit product, and our retailers or clients can expect good shelf-life. With the latest technologies we can facilitate a six to seven-day shelf-life, which is really something.”
With soft fruit still representing one of the biggest market groups for fresh produce, and the prepared sector continuing to expand, the team at Chambers believes there are additional opportunities to explore in the future.
“As the prepared market expands, more customers are looking for convenience and berries is an area in which we can excel,” Carter says. “The foresight that Tim Chambers had many years ago to get to this point is quite inspirational.
“At the moment, The Fruitery is relatively tailored in its supply but we can learn and build from that. We have started with our forte, which is our berries, and complementary products. In the future, it may be that we grow bespoke berry varieties for our prepared business. We will add some other products going forward as well.
“Right now, The Fruitery is built around our berry offer, and that’s our core point of difference. But we are looking at other projects that could sit alongside and complement The Fruitery, so watch this space!”
The LPS19 Production Tour, hosted by Chambers, runs from 7.30am until 3pm on Friday, June 7. There are 15 places available.
To register your interest, email [email protected]