Agrovista Cider Growers Technical Seminar

Taken from The Fruit Grower, March 2017, written by Clive Marlow

More than 60 growers of cider apples from Herefordshire and Worcestershire attended the Agrovista Cider Growers Technical Seminar held at Ledbury in Herefordshire in January.

In her introduction, Jane Antrobus of Agrovista said that the cider industry and cider apple growers would be facing many challenges during 2017. These went beyond Brexit and the election of President Trump and included the withdrawal of certain chemicals that had been routinely used by apple growers. However, the industry was positive and confident for the future. Jane then presented the first paper.

Nutrition in cider apple production

One of the most recent developments has been the role played by mycorrhizae - the symbiotic association between beneficial pathogens around the roots that build up over time and have a significant benefit for the health of the tree. The optimum pH of the soil for cider apple production is slightly acidic at between 6-3 and 6-8.

Nutrition is important, strong trees can withstand the stresses and pressures of pests and diseases. The correct timing of fertiliser applications is crucial and is as important as balance, and Jane gave the illustration of Liebig's Barrel that showed how growth is inhibited if one nutrient is in short supply. As micro-nutrients are not mobile within the tree, foliar applications are preferable.

Responding to a question from the floor regarding the use of sulphur, Jane answered that if it was used, firstly it should be applied as a foliar spray rather than dust, and should be applied early in the season before mouse-ear stage when it would control mites. She continued, "Caution should be exercised as certain varieties were susceptible to sulphur damage". Also, if applied at the wrong time it would cause cracking in the skin of the fruit.

Product choice - target specific or broad spectrum?

Paul Bennett, Agrovista's technical head of fruit, began his presentation by outlining problems that all top-fruit growers are facing. Aphox and Chlorpyrifos can no longer be used and it now is more important to use a specific product to control woolly aphid and other pests. The use of a broad­ spectrum product is no longer an easy option.

One positive aspect of this situation that has emerged is the recognition of the role of beneficial insects - identifying them and then protecting them with an appropriate choice of pesticides. Whilst growers are familiar with the adult ladybird, it is the larvae, not the adults, that are the most effective for controlling pests during early spring. Lacewing larvae consume aphids and mites, and parasitic wasps lay their eggs in aphid colonies and are consumed when the larvae hatch. The adult hoverfly and its larvae eat aphids and the adult pirate bug destroys caterpillars. But, by far the most beneficial insect is the earwig that offers the most effective control of woolly aphid. It is in growers' interests to provide natural winter habitats for earwigs. These are inexpensive and can be as simple as rolls of corrugated cardboard, bottles stuffed with straw or plastic rabbit guards around trunks of trees. The choice of pesticide must be to the benefit of the beneficial insects.

Paul Bennett explained the 'traffic light' system adopted by Agrovista advisors. Products in the 'Red' category, although approved for use, are broad-spectrum and tend to be harmful to beneficial insects, 'Amber' products are preferred to those in the 'Red' category and 'Green' products are the safest, having the least harmful effects on beneficial insects. The use of a broad-spectrum insecticide does not cost less and is likely to result in an increase in pests due to the damage caused to beneficial populations. Paul also advised checking the pH of the water when applying pesticides and, where necessary, the pH can be lowered with a water conditioner.

What next?

Neil Macdonald from Somerset, who is a Nuffield Scholar and an apple grower and cidermaker, began his address by saying that the British cider industry had much in its favour including climate, bitter-sweet varieties, a history of cidermaking and the 'British' brand. But, even with these advantages there are challenges on the horizon, not least of which is a surplus of UK production and the threat of cheap imported juice.

Neil's scholarship, to study the growing of apples, research  and the making of cider around the world, was sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers. Dessert apples are chiefly grown in temperate areas of the world, with China being the worlds largest producer at more than 37 million tonnes. The UK is ranked 41st in the world with 202,900 tonnes. Bitter-sweet (cider) apples are only grown in the UK, France and Spain, jointly producing about 500,000 tonnes. The British population consumes 14 litres of cider per head per annum, but the fastest growing market is the Czech Republic, albeit from a very low starting point. The market in the USA is static with most of the cider being produced by craft makers in the northern  states.

However, most cider is consumed in states where apples are not grown, with the highest consumption being in Texas. In France, the cider industry is in decline, due to politics and the stifling of innovation. There is some market growth in Australia and South Africa. As a grower, Neil had looked to purchase land in another country to grow apples and produce cider, but concluded that with our climate, culture, contracts, infrastructure and politics,  the UK was the best place.

Looking to the future and planning for the next generation, in the UK growers are well placed to respond to the changing demands of the cider industry. Growers must question how they manage their dependence on agrochemicals -  consumers do not want fruit to be sprayed with pesticides. We must acknowledge that UK production is in over-supply, but the good news is that demand worldwide is rising. We must develop new export markets and these may not necessarily be as bottled cider. Orchards must be future-proofed by recognising that, as the market changes, some of our current varieties may not be fit for purpose; new plantings must allow for automation with new technology, including robotics.

Every grower should view their orchard as a permanent experiment, trying and testing what works best for them with  their varieties, soil-type and weather conditions. The UK cider industry is robust, but to survive it needs research and development  that could be funded by a levy collected by AHDB.


14 March 2017

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