My mother and I enjoyed a talk and tour round Park Farm in Great Holland with Mr Elsworth, who owns and runs it as a thriving enterprise, a few weekends ago. Having recently planted three fruit trees in our back garden I was interested to learn what I could about looking after them - and encouraging fruitfulness of course.
Along the way he also shed light on changes for small to medium sized fruit producers since he took over the farm from his father, who first established it in 1935. There's no doubt the environment has become very tough for them.
For a start, only about 1/6th of the farm's original 60 hectares of orchards, is now devoted to fruit. Most of what they grow is sold locally, mainly through their own shop - and none through supermarkets or wholesalers, the latter were an important route to market in his father's time. Mr Elsworth related his last experience of delivering Discovery apples, usually the first early variety of the English apple season, up to the London markets one year, when most other UK growers' crops had failed. A peculiarity of the local coastal climate had saved his crop and he sent them up by train, expecting a good price in conditions of scarcity. They didn't sell, and he hadn't sent any away since.
The farm is not organic and I was mildly amused by his brief summary of why not. Apparently people who support organics think you don't use chemicals to sort out pests and yet organic farmers do need to use them. He said the knack to producing good quality fruit was to grow healthy trees, then disease wouldn't take hold. To me that is exactly what organic growing is all about! Using as little chemicals as possible, and those from an approved list of poisons derived from natural substances. Ah well, no one is perfect.
Most of the work of the farm is done by human beings and it's no picnic running a farm of this size, much of the outdoor work with casual labour. Young people don't stay on in permanent employment - he's just got them trained and they move on to something else. He commented wryly that if he needs 16 people to prune or pick apples he has to ask 20 to come in as he knows about a fifth won't turn up. In his experience, migrant labourers are more reliable - partly because they live onsite during the season so he knows where to find them when needed!
Beyond the problems of farming, he also shared some useful information for we gardeners! He showed us the Writtle College method of picking apples - cupping the fruit in your hand and rolling, rather than tugging it off the branch so the stalk stays on and keeps the fruit sealed and whole for storage (if the apples don't roll off easily they aren't ready). And he shared a technique to use alongside pruning for perfectly formed fruit trees - small concrete weights made in egg cartons and hung on individual branches to encourage them to grow outwards rather than up, for better productivity. He also uses calcium foliar feeds as needed, as this nutrient is difficult to administer in any other form.
We were surprised to hear that honey bees are not as useful as they're cracked up to be for pollination of fruit trees! Apparently the lazy things don't come out unless the weather is warm
(not always the case in our British spring). Other insects ( including other types of bee) are hardier, out earlier, and seem to do the job as well. Plus, the more flowers are pollinated, the more tiny fruits have to be removed from the trees in early summer (thus incurring additional labour costs) in order to produce a good crop of evenly spaced healthy apples! Over the last couple of years, the local beekeeper has taken his hives elsewhere and the crop has been more than adequately pollinated in their absence.
Park Farm produces 40 varieties of apple and it's a real treat to visit the farm's shop and choose. This time we brought home George Cave, Blenheim Orange, Egremont Russet and Ashmead's Kernel, all of excellent quality. We also had three litres of their fresh unpasteurised apple juice, which is usually available in at least three different varieties and vastly superior to (even the good) stuff from supermarket chiller cabinets. They supply boxes of fruit - follow the link above for further information. And if you should be somewhere near Clacton, do drop in for local vegetables and other fresh foods - and try their recently opened coffee shop, which does very reasonable lunches and delicious home baked cakes and desserts.