Pippa Woods of the Family Farmers’ Association asked: “Why did the British apple industry collapse and what future it has now? This is in connection with why we do not see many English apples in the shops.”
Chairman of the South Lakeland Orchard group, Andy Gilchrist, who is a retired agronomist and was involved in the apple industry gave the following answer:
Let’s start with some history:
In 1970, over 2,000 farmers grew about 150,000 acres of apple orchards. Forty years later, less than 500 fruit farmers are growing about 50,000 acres. So the “collapse” is a loss of 67% of English orchards, and 75% reduction in the number of English fruit growers.
There are three main reasons for this decline:
Firstly Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973 meant that import duties were removed for Continental European apples, which had a lower cost of production than English apples, mainly because they enjoyed a better climate, their growers were more progressive in adoption of new technology and grew higher yielding varieties. Cox has a low yield, and especially so from the traditional standard and bush trees then grown in England.
The second reason is marketing, both at the producer and retailer level. Continental European (mainly French) growers mostly belonged to grower co-operatives, who kept a percentage of sales to fund a marketing budget, with which they ran some very effective campaigns such as “Le Crunch” for French Golden Delicious. English growers by comparison were fiercely independent so did no effective or coherent marketing, except for relatively weak campaigns funded by the Apple & Pear Development Board from a modest levy. At the same time, supermarkets were fast gaining majority share of the grocery retail trade, and they demanded uniform blemish-free Class 1 fruit which was much easier to supply with French Golden Delicious than with English Cox’s.
Thirdly as a result of the above, it was recognised that many older orchards were in decline and becoming uneconomic, so government grants were made available for grubbing them out. The land was subsequently mostly turned over to arable production because the economics of wheat and oilseed rape production were far superior to apples.
Before addressing the future, let’s address the comment that “we don’t see many English apples in the shops”
Last month, Morrisons in Kendal were offering 13 different varieties of apple for sale. Of these, 4 were English (Cox, Bramley, Spartan, Royal Gala). It does not necessarily follow that 30% of those sold were English, the probability is that it was more like 20%. In fact it is generally claimed that Britain imports 80% of the apples eaten here. Certainly England could grow more than 20% of domestic consumption, but the point is that if consumers continue to demand Golden Delicious, Gala, Braeburn, Jonagold and the newer varieties Pink Lady, Fuji, Elstar, Jazz, Kanzi, Rubens……etc, then English growers cannot compete. English growers can only increase their production if consumers can be persuaded to eat more Cox, Bramley, and even heritage varieties such as Ribston Pippin, Ashmeads Kernel etc which grow better here than elsewhere. But that requires an effective marketing campaign, and nobody will fund that since nobody holds any intellectual property in these old varieties. Marketing campaigns are generally funded by those holding intellectual property (Plant Breeders Rights, Trademarks) who can ensure a return on their investment.
So, what is the future for the English apple industry?
Despite the comments above, the situation is not quite as gloomy as it seems. Although the area grown has declined significantly, the yield has risen due to new technology so that total production has not declined anywhere near as much. In fact over the last decade, English apple production has actually risen by 36%. The UK annually produces over 200,000 tonnes of apples. Yet this is only 2% of total EU production and a miniscule 0.25% of global apple production.
The cost of oil is high and likely to remain so or even increase further, adversely impacting transport costs, which is a plus factor for domestic production. The number of English fruit growers has now stabilised and those who remain are the best. They have younger, higher yielding orchards on M9 rootstocks producing a greater percentage of Class 1 fruit so can easily meet supermarket standards. They are early adopters of new technology and are already growing some of the newer varieties which suit our climate. Unfortunately, some varieties such as Pink Lady which requires a long growing season cannot be successfully grown here, so there will always be limits on the potential.
Any business or industry has to analyse its strengths and weakness, and then optimise opportunities provided by its strengths while minimising its weaknesses. What the English apple industry has achieved to-date is to very effectively minimise its weaknesses. It has not fully exploited its strengths. For example, because of our climate and culture, we grow the best cooking apples in the world. Surprisingly, the other EU countries do not grow cooking apples, rather they use dual purpose varieties (such as Reinette Grise du Canada) for cooking, despite the fact they consume as many apple-based desserts as we do. Bramley therefore represents a significant export opportunity. Unfortunately the structure of our industry means there is no organisation capable of mounting such a campaign.
Finally, are there any prospects for British heritage varieties?
We have to be realistic and accept that however good any of these varieties are, their insignificant production means they are unsuited to the supermarkets distribution channel. However, they are well suited to farm shop retailers, for example Orchard Barn apples from Arnside are sold through Plumgarth Farm Shop.
Farm shops are increasing around the country, and their business is increasing as more consumers try to buy local produce, so this is the route to encourage for heritage varieties, which will help to make them better known by consumers.
Many thanks for that information. I found it very interesting. Unfortunately my orchard is steep and bounded by a stone wall with difficult stile, so I cannot wander and sample the apples! But I get quantities of Bramleys brought in to give away and keep. They grow so well and prolific, each weighing up to a pound! I am still eating this year’s, so they keep reasonably well.