In 1967, after looking at the ongoing needs of the fruit industry, Professor John Hudson realised that it was essential for the next generation to have a stronger voice in the sector and so began the Under 40s, a fun and insightful group of likeminded young people involved in the UK fruit industry.

Over the last 50 plus years, the Under 40s’ UK based-conferences have evolved into comprehensive study tours around the world, and the organisation successfully attracts around 140 members. At the group’s 2019 technical interim trip, which was held on 7 June 2019, the diverse gathering of agronomists, fruit marketeers, machinery dealers, supermarket buyers, top and soft fruit growers and viticulturists at Bardsley’s River Farm Packhouse in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent, certainly reflected the passion, drive and enthusiasm the next generation of leading fruit experts have for the entire industry, from soil to shelf.

After the morning networking session, Ben Bardsley, current chairman of the group, welcomed over 70 delegates to his family’s fruit enterprise. Attendees were invited to tour the packhouse, seeing how the business is focused on investment for the future to overcome storage space, productivity and labour challenges and the orchards, seeing a high density Gala planting, which aims to achieve 60 tonnes per ha at a 90% grade out, a commercial trial orchard in partnership with Greenyard, and a 2,000-litre, three-row sprayer driving increased efficiency. After touring the busy facilities, delegates were then invited to the boardroom for a presentation on the group’s newly rebranded image.

“The Under 40s has done some really wonderful stuff since it started, but it was looking tired as a brand,” said Ben Bardsley, fifth generation fruit grower. “The success of the study tours to South Africa and Chile elevated this group to a new level, but it needed some formalisation to make sure that it is still going in another 50 years; so, we decided to rebrand and have now officially launched as the NextGen Fruit Group.”

Led by a new committee (Ben Bardsley, Bardsley England; Jim White, Freshfields; Laura Sale, Haygrove; Alex Myatt, J Myatt & Co; Andy Lloyd; HL Hutchinson Ltd; and Maddie Cannon, Nyetimber) NextGen will deliver an exciting schedule of events throughout the year. As well as a series of UK based trips to some of the leading businesses in the industry, in 2021, members of NextGen will have the opportunity to travel to New Zealand.

“Through a series of trips we are aiming to give young people the chance to develop and at every business we visit, members should be learning and thinking about what they can take back to their own businesses,” said Ben. “New Zealand is an amazing country, full of amazing fresh produce businesses, doing amazing things and we are hoping to take 60 people on the seven-day trip to see apples, pears, grapes, cherries, hops, kiwis and berries.”

With an aim of more than doubling the membership to 350, of which it is hoped 20% will be international, only having 60 places on the bi-annual study tour does pose a challenge, with Ben keen to point out that members seen to be the most involved with the organisation will be more likely to get a seat.

Moving on the group stopped off at the Milk House in Sissinghurst for lunch and more networking opportunities, before travelling on to Kent’s first commercial vineyard.

“We are celebrating Biddenden Vineyards’ 50th anniversary this year,” said Tom Barnes, third generation vineyard manager and winemaker. “In the late-1960s, my grandparents were looking to diversify their farm, which was originally arable with a 40-acre apple orchard. After listening to a feature on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour programme about English vineyards being replanted, my grandmother was inspired to turn to viticulture and in 1969, one third of an acre of vines was planted. We now have 11 varieties spread across 25-acres mainly being used to produce still wines, which suits us best as a business and family.”

The NextGen group took a tour of the estate, seeing the newest block of Bacchus, England’s most well-known still wine variety, which was planted just two years ago, and were given an insight into different vine training systems, as Tom discussed the two systems on which they grow Ortega, Biddenden’s flagship grape which covers over half the vineyard and is used for its award-winning still white wine.

With many questions from the group, Tom, his dad, Julian, and brothers, Will and Sam, provided the group with an interesting overview of the most challenging vineyard pests, the importance of canopy management and a well implemented spray programme, as well as benefits of being a single, family-run estate and the ability to pick the fruit at optimum ripeness.

The immaculately-kept estate has a carefully developed, personal tourism offering, which focuses on private guided tours for small groups, with 50% of wine sold through the cellar door and the other half via local trade. In the region of 500,000 litres of cider, apple and pear juice are also made on site and the NextGen group toured the production facilities, seeing the recently installed belt-press which is capable of pressing around 15 bins per day.

To finish another successful interim trip, the group tasted a range of Biddenden wines including the Bacchus, the estate’s sparkling white, a limited edition still Gamay noir red from 2018, an enticing sweet wine, and the Gribble Bridge Ortega Dry, which recently won a gold medal in the international Sommelier Wine Awards and was one of just eight wines from around the world to be selected for a special By the Glass award.