What the UK’s Under 40s Fruit Growers stand to gain from South African sojourn
The Under 40s carried out a pre-conference reconnaissance visit to South Africa in February this year

What the UK’s Under 40s Fruit Growers stand to gain from South African sojourn

Jim Butler
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Established in 1967 by Professor John Hudson to provide a voice for young(ish) growers in the industry, the Under 40s Fruit Growers group has gone on to be a focal point in the sector. Not only has it proved to be a forum to share knowledge and innovation, it has given a voice to growers who might not have been heard otherwise. One of the highlights of the group is its biennial conference – next February, to celebrate it’s 50th birthday – delegates will travel to South Africa. Produce Business UK learns more

Come next February, winter – the fag end of it anyway – will no doubt feel as though it has gone on, kicking and screaming, for ever. The days will still be shorter than a Shetland pony, the nights darker than a Charlie Brooker sketch show.

A trip to South Africa at such a time would be most welcome then, wouldn’t it? Hats off – but sun cream firmly on – then to the ingenious folk at the Under 40s Fruit Growers. To celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary, its two-yearly conference will be held, for the first time, outside Europe and in the Southern Hempisphere – the southern Cape of South Africa to be precise. 

Led by the conference’s irrepressible chairman Charlie Dunn (elected for his two-year stint at the Under 40s last conference to the Benelux in 2015, alongside vice chairman Paul Hamlyn, treasurer Chris Levett, sponsorship secretary Verity Holdstock, secretary Estera Amesz and Jane Cusack), 55 delegates will attend the week-long trip which promises to be a marvellous mix of fact-finding and networking. And while previous European trips at this relatively quiet time of year for British growers have always been informative, heading to the southern Cape means delegates will get to witness farms in operation.

Working and learning

“We’ll have a full working week there,” explains Dunn from a field on his Chandler & Dunn farm in Kent. “We’re going specifically to learn. To see new techniques and innovations. We’ve going to see a couple of farms that’ve got their own research and development areas – hopefully we can gain something there. There’s no point going for a weekend – that would be like going on a holiday. And the beauty of going to South Africa is we’ll be able to see things in production. We’ll be able to see picking, the fruits on the trees, packhouses in full swing and all the rest of it. It’ll be nice weather too.” 

Of the delegates flying out to South Africa, two-thirds attending will be fruit growers yet to reach that magical age where life – allegedly – begins. The rest will comprise of sponsors, most of whom are ancillary workers in fruit growing, or, as Dunn puts it: “the other cogs in the machine”. Among these sponsors is our very own London Produce Show and Conference.

“It’s a nice diverse range of companies that are supporting us,” Dunn says. “So we’ve got independent spraying technicians, marketing companies, people who are working at research centres – some are coming from East Malling [Research] – so one or two agronomists… We’ve got a nice varied range. They’re all a fundamental part of our network. It’s all aspects of the chain.”

This makes the trip not only an informative exercise but it provides a chance to make contacts in a pleasingly informal environment. Dunn relates that on the Benelux trip two years ago he met a sprayer who carried out some important work for him back in the UK.

He says: “By getting together with people like that – chemical companies for example that might want to do some trial work – if you can build up a rapport it just makes business a lot more seamless. It flows easier. You’re not just that person on the end of a phone. It’s important to be able to put a face to a name.”

The main component though is acquiring new knowledge, examining different methods of working and comparing ideas across top-, stone- and soft-fruit growing. A recce was carried out in February this year and Dunn says the trip was “very, very interesting.” 

“Without giving too much away there are a lot of comparisons with the UK industry,” he says.

Under 40s - South African recce
The group will stay in Stellenbosch and visit neighbouring regions too

Efficiency and adding value 

Some of the key areas Dunn wants to explore involve maximising the efficiency of farms and adding value. 

“One of the growers that we’re going to see is in Stellenbosch – he’s been going for years; he’s a soft fruit grower, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, but to reduce waste and maximise his waste product he’s established a jam factory.”

Water conservation is another vital – and timely – topic that needs addressing. As orchards become more intensely farmed, irrigation comes to the fore. Dunn suggests South African growers will have plenty of knowledge in this sphere that will prove beneficial to their UK visitors.

“Larger commercial farms have soil moisture probes,” he explains excitedly. “They have quite intricate irrigation systems – for example one chap in Boschendal runs the whole system from his iPhone. The soil moisture probes talk to his phone and then if a certain block gets too dry his phone is notified and he can turn on the system via his phone.” 

Dunn hasn’t implemented such innovative ideas on his family farm – yet. He suggests it won’t be long before they do though – he admits that he brought up the topic with his uncle recently.

“It’s becoming a lot more technical,” he says. “There’s a lot more science involved. It’s more precision farming than perhaps it was 15 years ago. You mark out orchards using GPS – soil sampling and the quality of the soil is more advanced. How you look at that before you plant…”

With increasingly smaller margins, Dunn says that future generations of fruit growers have to be savvier when it comes to preparation and attention to detail. 

“When you look at a lot of the farmers in this neck of the woods, in particular a lot of those that win prizes, the reason they win the prizes is because they do have that attention to detail. It’s as simple as that. Whatever the pioneers are pioneering we’d do well to learn from them.”

Growing conditions

The party will be staying in Stellenbosch, but visits to neighbouring regions – including Hermanus, Ceres and Elgin – will give the delegates a chance to see varying climates. 

“If you go to Ceres you’ve got more cereal growers there or vegetable growers, it just adds that extra element to our trip. Even in Kent, growing conditions can vary – go up to the Weald – so we can see how they do it there.”

Visiting research and development plants is something Dunn is also looking forward to. He notes that many fruit growers use AgroFresh’s SmartFresh technology in their storage regime and company has an R&D plant in South Africa so a trip there is a possibility. As talk increasingly turns to an all-year round supply of English fruit, these leaps in technology are vital in assisting UK growers supply the shops. 

He says: “Advances in controlled-atmosphere storage or other things like SmartFresh can prolong longevity… We’ve got trials on this farm with certain nutritional products and delivery systems that will hopefully give us better pressures or improve shelf life. And a combination of these things can help us.”

The next 50 years?

The trip to South Africa will see Dunn’s two-year spell in charge come to an end. He says it’s been a fantastic time. 

“The amount of connections you make, it’s been a great two years,” he says. “But it’s time for someone else. I just hope it gives them the benefits it has given me.”

By sticking close to the founding principles – to be an effective forum for debate and new ideas; to provide an opportunity to learn more about other sectors of the industry, fresh innovations and the potential of best practice; to learn about production systems abroad and in context; to build social and professional networks to help combat isolation issues and enhance career development potential – of the Under 40s Fruit Growers and giving the new generation a voice, Dunn is full of optimism for the future. He points to the social aspect of the group – its members try to get together a number of times during the year – and how they use visits to events such as The London Produce Show and Conference in June, where Dunn gave an update to delegates, to raise the profile of the group even further.

“We’re trying to get ourselves out there,” he concludes. “We’ve got some new faces on board. It gives us a good platform to make ourselves seen and heard.”

The forthcoming trip to South Africa promises to be a good base upon which to launch the Under 40s Fruit Growers on to the next 50 years. 

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