Co-operative Farms investment in East Kent poised to deliver unprecedented growth

Article taken from The Fruit Grower, written by Malcolm Withnall

Following the acquisition of the tenancy to the Highland Investment Company Ltd’s farms in East Kent, Farmcare, the agricultural arm of the Co-operative Group, invested in a significant development programme to establish a major new production base in the east of the country to complement their existing, more mature orchard establishment at Tillington in Herefordshire.

We spoke to Farm Manager, Sean Finlayson, in the week when members of the East Kent Fruit Society (EKFS) enjoyed a superb Blossom Walk at Highland Court Farm (now Bridge Farm), culminating in a barbecue at the splendid cricket pavilion at the farm.  “We always hoped that 2014 would be a ‘showcase’ year, and we were pleased to host EKFS members to share where we were in our initial Five Year Plan”, explained Sean.

The Highland Court Farm tenancy totals 264ha across East Kent, and embraces Bridge Farm at Bridge and Upper Horton, both near Canterbury, and Paramour, Felderland and Worth Hill Farms near Sandwich.  Bridge Farm has 1800 tonnes of CA storage and 700 tonnes of air storage.  The tenancy comprises 122.4ha of apples, 14.1ha of pears and 74.4ha of blackcurrants as the core enterprises, with 7.3ha of plums, 4.7ha cherries, 2.9ha walnuts, 1.8ha of apricots and 9.0ha of pick-your-own at Sandwich, widening the portfolio of crops grown.

The main thrust of the Farmcare investment has been the establishment of 71ha of new apple orchards at Bridge and Horton, to bring what was a traditional Cox-growing business into a new market place.  State-of-the-art planting systems and varieties have been employed, focusing initially on Horton and Bridge Farms, and, under Sean Finlayson’s management, new production systems developed to provide the most efficient use of capital.

“Like most others, we have invested in Gala and Braeburn – projected to represent 65% of the planted areas by 2019, and both are now well established as high performance varieties,” explained Sean.  “Parallel to these new varieties we have developed new intensive fruit wall systems, and are developing system of production that maximise the use of up-to-date machinery.”

Sean explained that the central strategy to a modern fruit growing business has to be to minimize the production cost per kg. 50 tonnes/ha is now regarded as an achievable yield target, whilst achieving the highest Class 1 grade-out in a range of fruit sizes commanding favourable prices across the longest season possible.

“We have placed emphasis on labour-intensive areas of production, including pruning, harvesting and spraying, and have focused on adding value at the front-end by investing in irrigation and fertigation systems,” he added.  “We have gained significant mastery of these areas, and will turn our attention to fruit thinning in the near future.

To address the costs of pruning, and reflecting the diminished supply of local, skilled labour, Bridge Farm has gained experience using cutting blade t prune and shape fruit walls in both winter and summer.  “With a £500/ha benchmark for hand-pruning, we have combined machine pruning at £30/ha with supplementary hand-pruning at £130/ha, to make significant gains,” he said.

“We favour machine-pruning around the green cluster stage, and are prepared to use Regalis growth regulator to balance tree growth if needed, although our soils are not naturally strong,” explained Sean.  “We are in the process of converting our earliest plantings to fruit walls, having planted specific fruit wall systems in 2011.  We have now included varieties such as Bramley and Russett, both of which appear to be responsive.”  Sean commented that they are modelling a 60cm row width, and developing a fairly columnar tree profile.  “Our walls are around 3.2m tall,” he said.

Consistent with pursuing high volume, high value, yield from their orchard plantings, the company has invested in a borehole at Bridge Farm and is rapidly developing orchard systems with integral irrigation/fertigation.  Sean paid tribute to a number of agronomists who have made invaluable contributions to the development of the farm to date, including Paul Bennett and Leon Jahae of Agrovista, Leon being central to the farms fertigation scheduling.

“I would also like to express appreciation to the Nicolai and Fleuren Nurseries in Europe who, between them, have developed a tree specification tailored for our needs, contributing greatly to the success of our recent plantings,” said Sea, “It is they who have introduced us to the new variety, Sweetie, which we have introduced into our portfolio and projected to be some 7% of the planted area by 2019.  The variety is a Gala x Braeburn cross from New Zealand with a very high Brix Value, and supplied via Rene Nicolai in Belgium.”

Commenting on their crop protection programmes guided by Agrovista, Sean referred to their Munckhof and Triprop tower sprayers, which support their Fantini orchard sprayers.  “We are investigating three-row sprayers, but at the moment they are falling short in our ‘return on invested capital’ calculations,” he said.  “In the longer term we foresee using three-row canopy sprayers for further efficiency and economy, as well as for environmental friendliness.”

One area under scrutiny for effective control was harvesting costs, but more importantly, matching the projected increase in bin number in the near future with picker numbers.  “We are very much taken with the efficiencies gained from Pluk-O-Trac systems,” said Sean.  “We have evaluated trains, but find that the Pluk-O-Trac system reduces harvest costs.  Our recent benchmarks show 4p/kg, as against 5p/kg using trains, plus the potential improvements to fruit quality delivered to the grader.”

Sean explained that the Highland Court Farm tenancy had recently become a member of Wye Fruits Ltd, Ledbury, Herefordshire, linking to the existing membership of Co-operative Group’s Tillington Fruit Farm and giving the business a huge logistical benefit and capital savings on investments in bulk bins as the production volumes rapidly increase around the farms – projected to double within three years to over 4,000 tonnes or 12,000 bins.

“Although the initial Five Year Plan is almost complete, I am confident that investments will continue to be made to take full advantage of the market place,” said Sean.  “But to be successful we have to drive down all areas of production cost, maximising the substitution of labour with machinery to find the highest levels of efficiency at all times.  However, at the same time we have to be very focussed on generating the highest volumes of the right sizes and grades of fruit for our customers using the quality of land and personnel available to us, and employing the highest levels of technology and fruit growing practice.”

 

19 June 2014

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