By the end of August each year, fourth generation fruit grower Robert Mitchell aims to have sold his entire crop, preferring to get “the apples gone and the money in” to fully concentrate on next year’s crop as quickly as possible.

Situated just outside Plaxtol, near Sevenoaks, Kent, Robert’s family farm has been home to orchards for over 100 years and today the 95 hectares site produces around 600 tonnes of pears, 150 tonnes of Egremont Russet, and over 3,000 tonnes of Bramley each year.

Benefitting from a diverse range of customers, Robert Mitchell Farms’ Egremont Russet is sold to a premium drinks manufacturer, its pears are grown in partnership with A C Goatham and Son for the major multiples, and over the years the farm has also built a strong reputation supplying its Bramleys to the processing trade.

“Apple pies, crumbles, yoghurts, sausages, juice, cider; if it’s got Bramley apples in then they are probably mine,” said Robert Mitchell, owner of Robert Mitchell Farms. “We are able to get the vast majority of what’s on the tree in the bin which means we can get a good yield of processable fruit and that works for us. The quality this year is excellent and the crop is heavy. By the end of August we had picked 25% of our entire Bramley crop, which is unheard of in a normal year.”

Dedicated to getting the fruit off site and to the customer as soon as possible, there is little need for vast square meters of cold stores at Robert Mitchell Farms and the newly constructed 3,500-bin store has instead been designed exclusively with the farm’s empty bins in mind.

Clean and dry

Currently, the empty bins, which are returned from the factories all year round, are kept either on tarmac, or less ideally on grass, loading areas dotted around the farm. Being open to the elements throughout the winter and spring months, the life expectancy of the farm’s bins is being compromised by a lack of storage and so Robert decided to have a dedicated barn built.

“Most growers would see a unit like this and think that they need to use it for cold storage,” said Robert. “But by making full use of the store for empty bins I hope to make them last at least 20 years. We have about 8,000 bins in total and the majority of them will be used twice, if not three times, in one season. The bins get used pretty hard so it is important to look after them.”

Constantly reinvesting into the farm, Robert currently purchases around 1,000 new bins each year from MJ Timber, a manufacturer based in Northern Ireland. At around £40 each, by doubling the lifespan of these bins, the £200,000 storage barn is set to offer significant return on investment.

The ventilated steel-frame building, which was constructed by Wealden AM, will not only keep the bins dry and help to increase their lifespan, but it will also keep them clean and protected from damage caused by wildlife.

“The new store will remove the risk of the bins being contaminated by animals, especially birds,” said Robert. “Having clean bins is an important part of our farm’s assured food standards policy. I am a big supporter of the Red Tractor scheme and without the stores we would have to wash all the bins before they are used.”

Productivity and logistics

The bin store is located around half a mile away from the main yard, and the building has been carefully planned so that it is well screened by trees and is almost impossible to see from the road network or the public footpaths nearby.

Part of the Robert Mitchell Farms’ larger long-term investment strategy, the store has also been constructed on the farm’s private road network within the heart of the newly established orchards and areas which are scheduled for planting over the next two years.

“We have a really good tarmaced road system throughout the farm which was put in around five years ago,” said Robert. “We wanted to complete the infrastructure first, then we planted the windbreaks and some trees were planted in 2014. Now we have the building finished, additional trees will be planted in spring 2019 and another block in 2020 to increase production.”

This expansion will see 16 hectares of new Bramley orchards set up and once this site is filled Robert will look to grub and replace the older, less productive orchards on the farm.

Choosing to carry out a selective pick in the orchard, at harvest time Robert will have 10 picking teams, all equipped with a T3030 New Holland tractor connected to five Kirkland picking trailers.

Having the store located on the road system and next to the new plantations will make it logistically ideal for bins loaded into the store over winter and spring, to be removed only at harvest time directly onto these picking trailers.

“It is all about efficiency at harvest and having the bins in the right place,” said Robert. “Everything is picked on to trailers and we will be able to get the tractors and trains straight to the barn to be loaded. If all the bins are kept over the other side of the farm it becomes a major carting exercise to pick these orchards. When the orchards are established and the store is full we will have enough bins in the right place and it will all work perfectly.”

When it came to the build the most challenging aspect was the weather, with the project encountering a few problems early on, having started in March 2018 around the time the ‘Beast from the East’ was wreaking havoc across the region.

“The groundworks team did a good job and once we got it fully enclosed the concrete floor went in without any issues,” said Robert. “It all happened very smoothly and we were very pleased with the project and Wealden AM who managed it very well. The whole build was well scheduled, everyone achieved what they were supposed to and we were really pleased to have it handed over in a good shape and exactly as I envisaged. I just can’t wait to use it now.”

Photos: Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic