Our Organic Concept Orchard

In the spring of 2007, we were approached by the apple supplier, OrchardWorld Ltd , and asked if we would host a 4 hectare state of the art 'Organic Concept Orchard'. This was to be a sister orchard to a one hectare conventional version planted on a neighbouring farm exactly one year earlier. Organic techniques and the technology available for pest and disease control had come on in leaps and bounds in the preceding two years, and feeling we now had a reasonable chance of success we accepted the offer.

The orchard, situated on our finest land, is a super-intensive planting based on the Dutch table-top design and is entirely systems driven; there are 3000 trees per hectare (compared with about 1000 per hectare as used in our conventional semi-intensive systems) planted on a wire and post support system under full trickle irrigation. This level of tree planting is the only way that such a capital intensive system can quickly achieve the very high yields required to make it a financially viable option.

The varieties were chosen for consumer appeal and to give a spread of maturity to aid marketing; they included Cox, Royal Gala, Braeburn, Bramley and Egremont Russet as well as newer more disease resistant varieties such as Early Windsor, Estival, Festival, Fuji and Pinova.

The trees were planted in late April 2007 and to ensure an adequate water supply, a derelict pond was restored as a reservoir for the trickle irrigation system; this has subsequently become a magnet for wildlife.

Red clover was planted between the rows providing habitat for predatory insects and pollinating bumblebees; the clover is also cut and spread under the trees as a ‘green manure' mulch to aid fertility building. As well as our Conservation Headlands, over 2.5 hectares of arable land on the farm is also drilled with red and white clover; we are members of the Operation Bumblebee project.

Apple scab control is managed using weather data that is continuously gathered electronically from two weather stations situated on the farm in association with a computer model for the disease. This allows exact and timely treatments of Sulphur and Potassium Bicarbonate to be applied during the early growing season.

The novel pheromone mating disruption system Exosex-C is used to control the major caterpillar pest Codling Moth, and the soap application techniques developed in our organic hop garden are being successfully used to control aphid pests and apple sucker.

It was hoped that yields of up to 15 tonnes per hectare would be achieved in 2008 only eighteen months after planting. This would compare with typical organic yields of 8 tonnes per hectare at full production.

The 2008 harvest was gathered in, and whilst the yields of Cox and the early varieties Estival, Festival and Early Windsor were disappointing, probably as a result of the appalling weather during flowering, all the other varieties hit the 15 tonne target. Pest and disease problems were completely controlled using the models and systems outlined above.

The target for 2009 was a 25 tonne yield. This crop  was harvested and the target achieved by the Braeburn, Gala and Pinova. All other varieties achieved 15-20 tonnes barring Cox which, although better than 2008 in both yield and quality, managed barely 5 tonnes. This variety will be replaced as it is clearly suited neither to the site nor the system. Again, diseases were entirely controlled as were the pests barring a very late attack of Summer Fruit Tortrix moth. So late was this attack that it is suspected that it may actually be a close relative, the Light Brown Apple Moth (LBAM), which caused this damage.

In April 2010, the underperforming Cox trees were replaced with Braeburn and Gala. This year the yield target for the orchard was 45 tonnes per hectare - a yield previously unthinkable in conventional apple production let alone under an organic  regime. As always, the growing season threw up its challenges, not least of which was the three weeks of icy east wind during blossom. Fortunately the fruit buds laid down during June 2009 were strong enough to withstand this and generally set well. Disease control was again absolute and the tortrix moths were far fewer in number and well controlled. The yields were well up on 2009, the star performers being Gala (42t/ha), Braeburn (45t/ha) and Pinova (52 t/ha). Whilst the Gala and Braeburn have graded out at over 90% class I, the Pinova, which at harvest looked to be of similar standard, has suffered post harvest with a progressive and very bad skin spotting. This is thought to be due to a nutrient imbalance caused by the extreme stress of the growing season compounded by a 5 degree frost and heavy rain just prior to harvest. The course of true love never runs true!

2011 could not have been more different. A very cold winter delivered more than enough chill units to the trees. When the spring sunshine broke through, the fruit bud swelled and burst spectacularly; the blossom period was as fast and furious as any we have known. The orchard hummed with the buzzing of innumerable bees and pollination was excellent. This was followed by a period of hot sunny weather - ideal for cell division - and everything looked set fair until 05.30 on the morning of May 4th, when an apparently insignificant 0.6 degrees of frost struck. This in itself should have caused little damage, but by 09.30, the temperature had soared to over 14 degrees Celsius; the rapid thawing of the tender young fruitlets destroyed the cells in many varieties (the new growth on my brother's vineyard on the slopes below the orchard was totally destroyed, never to recover). The crops on many orchards across the UK were wiped out including the lower half of our organic Worcester orchard and all the fruit on the lower branches of the Braeburn trees in The Concept Orchard; much of the remainder was horribly deformed. This frost also affected the Egremont Russet and Bramley trees but fortunately, the Royal Gala, Pinova and the early varieties were untouched. This turned out to be the low point of the season as we again managed to control pests and diseases pretty much completely. Where crop growth was unhindered, excellent yields were achieved. Pinova was again the top performer hitting a whopping 64 tonnes per hectare followed by the Gala (62t/ha) and Estival which at 42 t/ha was an extraordinary yield for an early variety. In the end, even the Braeburn achieved 34 t/ha and all again graded out at over 90%. Sales have been strong, and no storage problems were encountered this year.

In the thirty years I have been farming, I have never known a year like 2012. Almost no rain fell through the winter and by the end of March, many ponds were still bone dry. On the back of a large irrigation water bill in 2011, we decided to construct a bore hole to provide irrigation water for the orchard. The day we finished in early April, the heavens opened and barring a brief respite in September, it has rained pretty much consistently throughout the year. Almost every month has broken our farm rainfall records and this has brought a flood of problems with it. Controlling disease has been a nightmare and without our predictive models and an utterly dedicated staff, we would have surely failed. As it was, we managed to confine the scab to leaf tissue on all but the Royal Gala. The wet cold weather created poor pollination conditions and we counted our blessings that we have so many insects around the farm to help. Cold post bloom weather meant cell division was very limited and the end result at harvest was fruit a good 10 mm smaller than last year. On the positive side, we had little trouble from insect pests as the cold weather inhibited their activity almost totally. The early varieties were harvested in the dry, but the major players, Gala, Pinova and Braeburn were picked in quite appallingly wet conditions and it was into November before we completed the job. Our beautiful orchard looks as though we have been fighting a tank battle and there will be a great deal of repair work to do before the spring if the land ever dries up. Yields, whilst not up to last years levels, were however significantly better in both size and quality than we dared hope for. Braeburn, Gala and Estival yielded just over 40 tonnes per hectare, Pinova just over 50 t/ha and the small area of Fuji an incredible 77 t/ha. The other varieties were between 25 and 35 t/ha apart from Bramley and Early Windsor which were disappointing. As I write in early November, sales have been good and we hope to be out by Christmas.


"Three Generations"

The best of grandfather's husbandry meets the best of modern technology in the organic concept orchard.