Apple growers face world of change

Apple growers have to make long-term production decisions and right now - in a world of change - that is more difficult than ever, says UK-based farmer Alison Capper discusses

Alison grows 40ha of Gala, Braeburn and Red Windsor apples for supermarkets along with cider apples for the drink industry at Stocks Farm, Suckley, Worcestershire.  The farm also grows 40ha of hops – enough to brew 46 million pints of beer. But global politics, economics and consumer trends mean the potential future outcomes for the farm vary wildly from a huge upscaling in production to serve new markets or being forced to quit apple growing altogether.

“In apples we make long-term practical decisions. If we’re looking at replanting orchards, there is a seven-year time-frame from ordering the trees at the nursery, to full yield production. That means if we ordered trees now, we wouldn’t see them hit full production until autumn 2025,” she says. 

By then the UK’s exit from the European Union in March 2019, and the proposed two-year transition period for normal trading beyond that, will be long past.  If it spells an end to the free movement of European workers, apple growing at the farm could be in jeopardy.

At harvest time, between September and November in the UK, the labour force swells from three full-time workers to 70 employees picking apples.  If the farm can’t attract the workers the stark reality Alison faces may be to pull up trees and quit apple production altogether, but she says this is not just a UK problem.

Labour supply is a global problem and probably the biggest issue undermining long-term confidence for fruit growers worldwide, says Alison.  She points to the USA where fruit tree growers depend on workers from nearby countries like Mexico to pick apples.

Political change under the Trump administration may place constraints on workers travelling from south of the border. The prospects of switching to a higher cost US workforce instead, means some growing companies are relocating to Mexico where labour is cheaper.

Across the globe, economic power shifts and political developments are also prompting change in the apple growing sector.

China is a huge market but has a colossal apple production capacity raising questions over whether it is a threat or opportunity to the traditional apple growing countries, says Alison.  To date production has mainly served the Chinese home market with a large proportion of the crop turned into juice.  It could mean there is still scope to scale up production and target the eating apple market in China -along with other booming Asian countries.   We have a strong position and could exploit our reputation for producing quality fruit with careful and conscientious control of pesticide applications, she says.

What fruit the consumers will want in these future markets, and here at home, will be a challenge.    

“While growers will continue to look for improved colour, better disease resistance and yield I think there will be a strong market for cultivars that have enhanced nutritional characteristics.

“The consumer is always looking for something new but cultivars which can offer more fibre, vitamins and other essential minerals will come to the fore,” she predicts.

Read about further about Alison Capper’s experiences and the global issue of changes in climate that could cause a huge shift in the apple growing sector [LINK TO PART 2]
Alison Capper
Alison Capper is chairman of the Horticulture & Potatoes Board at the UK's National Farmers Union. She is also a director at the Wye Fruit Producer Organisation in England, a Nuffield Scholar, a British Hop Association board member, chairman of Wye Hops (breeding programme) and is a trustee of both the farming education body, FACE, and the Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust. In addition to these posts she and her husband Richard farm in partnership with Richard's father Mark, growing top fruit and hops at Stocks Farm in Worcestershire
Stocks Farm harvest 2017
Stocks Farm harvest 2017
Apple harvester at Stocks Farm
Apple harvester at Stocks Farm