At this stage of the year in my apple growing days, the packhouse was buzzing as Christmas approached...
One of the advantages of being a 'very senior citizen' is the ability to draw on memories past.......
With just three weeks to go before Christmas my thoughts drift back to 'days gone by'..........
Fifty years ago we were packing apples knowing there was a strong demand from the London Wholesalers as greengrocers anticipating an upward spiral in price by Christmas, bought as much as they could 'stuff' into their small cold stores anticipating a bigger profit on their stock as Christmas got nearer and prices rose, but by 25 years ago the position had changed dramatically; the demand from greengrocers for our apples had decreased substantially as the Supermarket 'Giants' dominated the retail sector.
When I built a new packhouse in the early 1980's we could still sell Class 2 apples; primarily to wholesalers who served the local greengrocers in the South East of England. The build up to Christmas was still 'fun' with my staff busy packing for Sainsburys & Tesco with Christmas music playing in the background; e.g. it was a wonderful time with plenty of Supermarket orders, a festive spirit in which to work and WE the English growers in our 'modestly sized' packhouses feeling WANTED but by the time I sold my farm in 1991 the pressures and uncertainty were building; demands for 'seven day' working, downward pressure on price, ever more sophisticated packaging requirements, expectations of audit requirements which were based on 'high risk' food factories, drove the 'Audit Bandwagon' and many growers towards selling up!
When I visit modern packhouses serving their Supermarket customers, the standard of the facilities fits 'the white box' environment expected by the retail customers, the equipment is sophisticated and VERY expensive; the demands have resulted in all the small/medium packhouses closing. Packing apples (and all produce) is now the domain of 'specialist packing and storage' businesses; it is a seven day operation and in most cases 12 months of the year; either packing 'home grown' fruit or contract packing imported fruit to justify the investment and keep trained personnel in work.
Now many of my friends in the industry, will say; "YOU were a poacher turned gamekeeper", and they are right. Having sold up I joined the largest Cooperative marketing English Apples & Pears in a Quality Control role (which involved audits of growers, packers and fruit quality) before rising to UK Technical Director of what is still THE major marketing company selling English apples & pears to Supermarkets..........and I agree with many of the demands for farm and packing environment audits.......It is difficult not to agree with what should be a safe and hygienic environment.......
HOWEVER The price home to the grower is inadequate for a sustainable industry..........we (the industry) have met all the demands for audits; and the drive for increasing efficiency in the orchards and the storage and packing aspects are constantly moving forward - 'as they should' - BUT in my 'humble opinion' we are reaching a stage where only the 'Big Boys' can sustain the increasing price pressures and remain in business........and even they (the Big Boys) may find sustainable growing; allowing for re-investment, while earning a living for the growers and a 'living wage' for the employees a 'testing' and quite probably an 'impossible' challenge!
Government has encouraged more home produced food and Supermarkets have promised support for UK production. The top fruit industry has worked hard to increase production of home grown fruit, reducing the dependence on imported fruit, however if the 'price back to the grower' (net return) does not improve, many more small/medium growers will leave the industry. In all probability over the next few years the small/medium growers will leave the top fruit industry, while the few (very few) growers who dominate the industry will just get bigger..........OR....the industry will contract further and home grown fruit will reduce as cheap imported top fruit once again becomes the norm!
The strength of the £ against the Euro makes imports attractive to Supermarket buyers, we cannot compete against the cheap apples from Europe on 'price alone' - it may be difficult for consumers to understand....but apples are too cheap...... "if our industry is to survive as meaningful source of top fruit on our Supermarket shelves".........
In last week's Journal, The English Apple Man reported some elements of the Under 40 - 2017 Launch at Chapel Down Winery at Tenterden in Kent.
On our arrival we were welcomed with Chapel Down's Sparkling White Wine
After Chairman Charlie Dunn 'set the ball rolling' - Peter White gave a presentation on the importance of irrigation and the monitoring capability of modern equipment.
"The surface gives no real indication of how much water is really available to the crop. The surface can be bone dry over a soil with plenty of water or be wet following recent rain/ irrigation that has only penetrated a few centimeters"
Soil Moisture Sense Ltd. specialize soil moisture monitoring which is our core business but we also deal with weather monitoring and store monitoring Working overseas with UK companies- East Africa, Spain, Senegal, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
Click on Enviroscan to view monitoring technology
The U40's gathered in Chapel Down's - The Swan Restaurant for an excellent lunch..........
After lunch we split into two groups for a tour of the Vineyard and Winery
Standing by the original vineyard at Chapel Down, it is remarkable that centuries ago, 'just over the brow; lay the Harbour where where English Kings built their Warships in the 14th, 15th & 16th Centuries
Below: from the original vineyard it is 'just over the brow' to where the old Harbour was situated in Medieval times
Smallhythe, on the broad River Rother, was an important shipyard from at least the 13 century. Indeed, it was one of the most significant ship-building centres of medieval England. Smallhythe was a community of around 200 people, most of whom were involved in shipbuilding until the mid 16th Century when the River began to silt up.
Below: Smallhythe Place - once the Harbour Master's residence, later the home of 'actress' Ellen Terry and now under National Trust management.
In 1546 Henry VIII ordered The Great Gallyon to be built at Smallhythe. At 300 tons, she was the last of the Great Ships, the last Royal Commission for Smallhythe and the last large vessel to be built there.>
Below: the original Vineyard - and - learning about producing wine grapes from our guide
From the vineyard into the winery; there are three different sized presses. Each press has an inflatable bag inside which slowly expands 'pressing the grapes gently' to ensure the juice is free from the skins. The process continues 'recycling the pulp' for further pressing.
Below: on of the three presses used to extract juice from the grapes - and - some of the many stainless steel storage tanks
Champagne and sparkling wines are made with the methode champenoise, a technique of creating a sparkling wine. One of these stages is the riddling stage. The aim of this stage is to get the yeast sludge, left over from the fermentation, out of the bottle.
That's where the rotation during fermentation comes in. The winemakers are easing the sludge down to the neck of the bottle, without mixing it back into the Champagne, so it can be removed. They remove the sludge, recap the bottle with that mushroom cap that's so famous, and put on the wire cage.
Below: the bottle is 'uncapped' the sludge removed and the bottle 'topped up, before moving onto the 'mushroom cap stage
Below: bottles corked - and - stacking
Before leaving Chapel Down, a visit to the Shop put the icing on the cake.....not just award winning wines, a host of excellent products to 'tantalize the taste buds' -
Below: our excellent guides who made the visit so memorable - and - the Chapel Down Shop
That is all for this week, but before signing off, the Three Graces sparkling wine bought in the Chapel Down Shop 'went down very well' on Thursday evening before Dinner with my brother & sister-in-law, my wife and two very good friends.........
So sorry for the late publication on line - it is now 8pm on Saturday 5th December...
The English Apple Man