Delivering a fresh model

Features Posted 26/02/18
A model producer organisation for the future, the Avalon Growers’ Producer Organisation has developed a strong strategy facilitating members’ growth through its focus on the environment, improving quality and sharing information.

Formed from the alliance of the Society of Growers of Top Fruit (SGT) and the Fruit Growers’ Alliance (FGA), the Avalon Growers’ Producer Organisation (AGPO) is the newest producer organisation (PO) on the scene delivering a fresh model for fruit growing co-operatives.

Bringing growers with a common product together under a strategic business plan, POs are one of the most underutilised streams of funding and business development support in the country.

With contributions from members match-funded by the government, AGPO provides growers with access to services and assists them to invest in machinery and technology which often wouldn’t be possible if they were going it alone.

“Our growers act as individual, autonomous businesses but under AGPO they can get ahead with developments which they wouldn’t normally be able to access themselves,” said Sarah Calcutt, general manager at AGPO. “From planting trees, to increasing efficiency in the orchard, looking at ways to improve fruit quality or how to reduce the impact on the environment, each member can choose how they spend their budget, but all services and investments fall under AGPO’s long-term strategic aims.”

As AGPO’s initial 2017 programme amalgamated the highlights from the SGT and FGA programmes, with the appointment of Sarah Calcutt as general manager in November 2016, the 2018 business plan has looked at what will really deliver for the members and there is now a targeted, well-informed five-year strategy in place with each year also delivering a set of goals.

“The board did an extraordinary amount of work putting together the two groups,” said Sarah. “After a year of administering the 2017 plan, getting to know the growers and what they could benefit from, we have been able to introduce some new ideas to keep members ahead in the industry.”

As well as managing communication, delivering the programme and ensuring that each grower gets the most from their membership, Sarah also provides a vital research role, visiting shows and events on behalf of the PO, looking at new technologies and varieties to keep growers up-to-date with industry developments and trends.

Going green

Looking towards the government’s predicted focus for greener agriculture policy post-Brexit, AGPO is strategically helping members to improve environmentally, while simultaneously improving fruit quality, efficiency and reducing the costs of production.

Investment in dynamic cold atmosphere (DCA) fruit storage systems, for instance, has improved the marketing opportunities through the year as effective storage keeps fruit at a better quality for longer.

The systems also use less electricity to maintain the atmosphere and consequently reduce the overheads of powering a long-term storage facility while also improving the impact on the environment.

For Hawkhurst-based grower Chris Levett, Baretilt Farm, AGPO’s environmental aims have also enabled him to purchase a Fendt Vario 209V from N P Seymour. Complete with Vario transmission, the tractor is designed to drive at an economical optimum greatly reducing fuel consumption and thus cutting the use of carbon fuels.

It is also hoped that the improved suspension and smoother ride from the clutch-less transmission will reduce the amount of bruising to fruit during transportation at harvest time, which can reduce its quality and marketability.

Electricity and fuel reductions are not the only areas in which AGPO is hoping to make savings to both growers’ costs and the environment. Working with the UK distributers Landseer, AGPO has researched and trialled a new technology called TrapView, to help growers reduce the damage from moths without excessive chemical spraying.

“Codling, Summer Fruit Tortrix and Fruit Tree Tortrix moths can cause havoc in the orchard,” said Sarah. “The system to control populations at the moment is very labour intensive as you ought to check your traps manually every day. Trying to plan a spraying programme from this is often difficult, using weather station predictive models creates a programme that is precautionary rather than targeted usage through actual population data.”

As with traditional traps, TrapView contains a pheromone lure to attract moths and a sticky pad to catch them. However, it also includes cameras to record activity allowing growers to count moths from the comfort of the farm office. The sophisticated software will also look at historical data to detect if there is a particularly high moth population in the orchard.

“Basing spraying applications on real-time moth populations will help growers to make major headway in cost savings and protecting the environment,” said Sarah. “Additionally, because we are investing in TrapView as a group, we can also use the technology to look at population movements and identify hot spots which will help to inform agronomists and benefit the whole industry.”

Equipment for efficiency

As the fruit industry is faced with uncertainty over the availability of European workers and with labour also costing more today, increasing efficiency in the orchard is high on the agenda for AGPO and its members.

“With all of the pressure on trying to find workers, anything which we can do to reduce the reliance is great,” said Sarah. “Picking is hard work, so the PO has been looking into different types of picking trains and platforms.”

Taking advantage of the research, trials and evaluation carried out by fellow AGPO members, James Smith, Loddington Farms, is now investing in a state-of-the-art self-propelled picking platform through the PO to optimise performance in the orchard and ensure that every piece of fruit with potential for profit is looked after in the right way.

Instead of pickers carting heavy bags of fruit to the bin, the new Billo platform from Bourne Engineering comprises two conveyor belts which pickers load from the tree. The fruit is then directly transported to the bin, with full bins automatically unloaded and new bins reloaded.

“With traditional methods of picking, productivity has usually plummeted by 3pm and workers are operating at around 60% of the efficiency than they were in the morning,” said Sarah. “Looking at the systems where pickers haven’t got to carry fruit, productivity by 3pm might have fallen by 20% but that will make a huge difference to harvest and it makes for a better work experience for the pickers with less backache.”

AGPO has also been investing in research to look at how pollinators can influence an effective harvest.

As part of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the PO funds a consortium who are looking at the optimisation of pollinators in the orchard and whether improvements to the orchard environment could help harvest timing.

“There is a phrase at the moment which is being misinterpreted, called pollination deficit,” said Sarah. “This is not that we have killed all our bees with neonicotinoids. In many orchards we have a pollination deficit because we are not optimising our potential. We want to have bud burst at the same time and when the blossoms start opening we want them to be pollinated within a few days.”

This synchronicity through the season should lead to better nutritional uptake, balanced fruit sizes and a tighter harvest window, meaning growers shouldn’t have to revisit orchards two or three times.

While the project has two more years to run, it is hoped the results will provide members with the key ways of developing the orchard environment to encourage pollinators, whether that is through a wild flower mix spread in between orchard rows, through the development of the wood and hedgerow, or the creation of man-made ‘bee hotels’. Either way, this upfront investment into research will deliver improved knowledge to AGPO members and should return cost savings and quality improvements at the harvest period.

Information is key

While one of the benefits of being a member of a PO is the purchase of large, expensive pieces of equipment which growers wouldn’t have been able to secure alone, AGPO also provides its members with access to information to help improve fruit marketability and profitability.

Inherited from FGA and rolled out to all members in 2017, a user-friendly cropping capture system, POMONA, designed by Ether Creative, enables AGPO growers to build a complete record of orchard information from planting dates, to the area covered, the varieties grown, crop estimates, harvest yields and picking dates.

“The management data and reports which can be drawn from POMONA are exceptionally useful for the growers and also keep the marketing desk well informed,” said Sarah. “This year, for example, there will be space to add in picking days, so we can see when stores were opened and closed and that information will help to build rankings for the sales team.”

POMONA is also being used to show growers if certain orchards are performing better than others. By offering Agrii Soil Quest team’s soil analysis and mapping services to members, AGPO is hoping that this increased availability of information will influence farm management decisions, helping growers to improve profitability.

These maps will become the basis of a more comprehensive management data capture project which will include the GPS mapping of each bin harvested with an overlay of all production operations throughout the year.

“A challenge for a lot of growers is they will see a great crop but if one half of the orchard is not performing, the volume which comes from that block is not going to deliver a profit overall,” said Sarah. “GPS mapping can help our growers to see performance in black and white and can help them make decisions, such as whether to grub an unprofitable section for instance or invest in new strategies to improve it.”

The soil sampling and analysis from Soil Quest will be used to deliver growers with a prescription for spreading which will be delivered to the group by Steve Pack Agricultural Services. There are also future plans in the pipeline for AGPO to acquire its own Kuhn GPS-led variable rate orchard spreader from Haynes.

Controlling the quality

Chairman of AGPO, Chris Browning, has been heavily investing in his pack house at Cottage Farms, Horsmonden, to ensure members have access to an efficient, cost-effective packing line.

Three and a half years in to its £3.3million investment, Cottage Farms has already added an Aweta pre-sizer and grading line, is set to acquire end of line robotics and will also be constructing a new 15,000 sq ft cold store with mobile racking to increase storage capacity by 1,200 pallets.

“With the introduction of the robotics it will enable us to look at holding our pack rates and although it is a significant investment it is the only thing which will quell the annual increase in wages to help keep packing costs down for growers. So far, we have managed to hold pack rates at the same levels for the last four seasons, in the same period, wage rates have increased by in excess of 18%,” said Chris Browning.

The Aweta grading line, complete with infrared scanner to analyse the internals of the fruit, is also freeing up time for the quality control (QC) team at Cottage Farm, enabling them to feed information back to growers to help them make the right decisions about yield and the profit potential for every bin. “The QC team have more time to evaluate and give information back to the growers about the issues which may have come from an agronomy failure, picking issue or storage problem and it is giving us more data about historic problems as well as the size and quality profile of fruit which comes out of every orchard,” said Sarah.

Supporting growers

One of the biggest challenges growers face is the ‘dark art’ of estimating what fruit is on the tree, an issue which AGPO is keen to tackle through the education of its members this year.

Having appointed Brian Thompsett to deliver a multi-layered training and support offering for growers, a number of workshops will be based on the different formulas used to estimate crop, from how to walk the orchard to counting trees and general estimation techniques.

“We want to aim to get our crop estimation accuracy within 10% to be able to give more information to the marketing team,” said Sarah. “We have got to give them the right figures for the volumes, sizes and sales potentials so they can effectively plan the season with retailers.”

For growers open to learning new ways of doing things, Mr Thompsett will also be providing advice on pruning techniques and how to thin effectively to make sure growers maximise their potential from each tree by ensuring that it is producing fruit of an optimal marketing size, he will also be on hand to deliver training to new orchard supervisors come harvest.

A culture of progression

The formation of AGPO has also revolutionised the way growers and the marketing desk interact with each other.

With its 21 members owning a 50% share in the newly formed marketing desk Avalon Produce Ltd (APL), the new business model is an entirely mutually beneficial arrangement, providing parity and a strong working relationship between growers and the sales team.

Merging the SGT commercial team with the previous Norman Collett team has provided a phenomenal range of opportunities for growers as a strong selection of customers is now combined with a knowledgeable, dedicated and passionate marketing team.

“Avalon Produce has seen a change of mind set, approach and focus,” said Ashley Bernhard, chief executive officer of Avalon Produce Ltd (APL). “The culture of Avalon is about progression, not just for financial reasons, but also to help the environment and find new ways to do things. We are pushing the boundaries and breaking new territory by having a transparent approach with growers, identifying any issues, making improvements and moving forward all the time.”

As the strategic aims from AGPO drive growers to produce more profitable fruit, the marketing desk works tirelessly to ensure that all fruit produced is sold at the best price for its grade and that there are sales for all types of fruit.

“We avoid any waste within our group,” said Ashley. “Avalon has proved that it can sell all of the fruit in the bin and as a result whatever crop we get, whatever volume there is, whatever the quality is, Avalon will turn it into as much money as possible for the growers.”

There is now a market for every piece of sound fruit, from premium quality which goes direct to the supermarket, to larger pieces of fruit which go into wholesales boxes, to fruit for juicing, meaning that nothing is sent to landfill.

Researching new varieties

One of the other benefits of AGPO membership is an annual entitlement to an allocation of trees and drawing on a piece of research (colloquially known as ‘are they dead yet’) conducted by Sarah, members are protected from ordering trees from nurseries which appear to have endemic issues of canker. When it comes to investing in new varieties, members are also protected from choosing unmarketable varieties which have not been evaluated properly in the UK. Since, planting new varieties can be eye wateringly costly to growers if the wrong one is chosen, AGPO and APL have invested in a trial orchard, which is located at Hayle Farm, Horsmonden and managed by AGPO member Richard Edmed.

“The trial orchard is a one-hectare plot in the middle of Hayle Farm,” said Richard Edmed. “We have around 50 varieties at a time, some only last two years, but others will stay for five. Cabaret is a new Avalon variety which has done so well we have planted 500 trees at the main farm with plans to plant 7,000 more at Flightshot Farm.”

In the trial orchard, all varieties receive a robust evaluation of whether the apple will grow in the UK, what its optimum harvest date is, what its potential size and grade is, how well it stores, the best time to market it, and of course how it tastes.

This collaboration between APL and AGPO ensures that growers have the best access to new varieties which not only have been proven to grow in the UK climate but have also got commercial potential.

“The latest new variety Avalon has is called Kentish Kiss,” said Ashley. “Tesco has backed it and the name Kentish Kiss was actually chosen by one of their customers. Its main attribute is that the apple is robust and capable of extending the UK dessert apple season from May until August. In addition, the apple colours up well, yields consistently and, most importantly, tastes great.”

Grower Profile: Richard Edmed, Hayle Farm/

After joining the family farm in 1995 following his studies at Hadlow College, Richard Edmed now manages the 168-hectare farm in Horsmonden growing top fruit, blackcurrants, gooseberries, plums and hops.

While Richard admits that the family was “late to join a PO”, he says that the business has not looked back since. Richard believes that being a PO member has enabled the farm to stay ahead of the game and has helped the family make changes and investment which would not have been possible alone. “Hayle Farm was a traditional Weald of Kent apple orchard with Bramley and Cox,” said Richard Edmed. “As Bramley sales plummeted, being part of a PO has allowed us to change over to Gala, Braeburn, Cameo and other new desired apples quickly. We have also had PO investment into cold storage, bulk bins, a more efficient sprayer and irrigation which would have taken much longer without the PO because the margins in fruit are so small.”

Alongside the investment, Richard considers his AGPO membership as a vital way to stay one step ahead of industry developments without having to spend crucial farm time researching machinery and technology.

“Having access to the research Sarah is doing under the PO keeps the business forward thinking without having to get bombarded with leaflets and adverts,” said Richard.

Focused on growth and economies of scale, Richard has recently taken on a 20-year lease of 29.1 hectares at Flightshot Farm, Horsmonden. While the farm is currently planted with old, traditional Cox, Richard is hoping to grub and replant within the next five years moving over to a modern system.

While the project is not fully funded by the PO, Richard has been able to use his annual tree allocation to help keep costs down and has significantly benefited from AGPO research, especially into metal posts.

“We have planted 25,000 Braeburn, Cabaret and Gala trees, one metre part, with creosote end posts acting as anchors and metal Aluzinc® posts in between. The metal posts were introduced to us at a technical event organised by Sarah and are proving to be cost effective and come with a 25-year guarantee,” said Richard. “The trees should start cropping in year two and be full cropping by year five with the new system hopefully encouraging better fruit quality, better yields and will be more economical from a labour perspective.”

Joining the revolution

Having also taken on a lease of land at Flightshot Farm, Richard Bridger, whose family owns Chilwood Farm, Brenchley, was actively encouraged by Richard Edmed to join AGPO.

In the first year of membership Mr Bridger will be able to take advantage of all the centrally funded assets within AGPO. From having his agronomy match funded, to having Soil Quest in to analyse the orchards, to the ability to use Steve Pack for spreading fertiliser, access to TrapView, Sarah lobbying on the big issues that affect members, access to PO owned equipment, fruit bins and the benefit of training service from AGPO appointed trainer Brian Thompsett.

After a year Mr Bridger will then have a proportional entitlement to the AGPO pot which he can use to invest into his business, from the purchase of trees, to more expensive machinery like tractors or picking lines, or infrastructure like DCA stores.

“If you look at the investment programme you can gain from PO membership and if you use that investment in the wisest way there are massive benefits to be had,” said Chris Browning, chairman of AGPO. “Not only from the physical investments but from the vast amount of information you can get. It is an insight into what is happening in the industry, it is being able to look at what fellow growers are doing, and it takes the leg work out of having to look into new innovations. Acting collaboratively can certainly help boost efficiency.”

Looking towards the future

With AGPO still in its infancy there are a number of projects still on the horizon and the PO is now looking to recruit a technical executive to help Sarah with research and the delivery of the programme.

From investigating the members’ carbon footprint, how much is generated and how it can be reduced, to producing a statement on how the group is effectively marketing 100% of the bin, with details of percentage of product packed versus product sold to wholesale, to managing audits and crop assurance schemes like LEAF and Red Tractor, the new candidate would have a varied role.

“We are looking for someone who can bring data together, who understands the farming sector and can manage audits,” said Sarah.

While there have already been drastic improvements in the management information available, the newest approved PO is keen to show that its fresh model will pave the way for a prosperous future for members. Chairman Chris is determined to see growers make the most of the opportunities.

“I want all our growers to be in continued profitable businesses within the five-year period,” said Chris. “The PO can go a long way to helping this but there is a lot more to do. We need all the members to embrace the projects that we are looking at now, it would then help their profitability. It is all about being as efficient as possible.”

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