This packhouse is really important, not just for the growers but also for the Society of Growers Topfruit (SGT) and Tesco, changing the way we work, bringing everything closer to the grower and packer so we keep a compacted straight line of supply and management says Chris Browning of Cottage Farms in Horsmonden, Kent.

Chris has taken a bold, but necessary, move in consolidating his packing operation to one site. He has extended the grading quality management systems and is providing his grower association with a facility to take them forward into their new direct supply relationship with the retailer. “There really wasn’t another option other than to go with Andrew Wills and the ICA and STS teams,” said Chris Browning. “Their excellent reputation is well deserved and we have greatly benefitted from their experience and the ‘can do’ attitude to solving problems, of which there has been a few with this build.”

The thought process behind the consolidation began around five years ago and was driven by a business plan, based on the demands of marketing in the future. Derek Whitnall of SGT said: “I could foresee a time in the future when our network of packhouses would come under threat of being unable to continue; we needed to become focussed on those who were able to pack through the season and were able to take up the challenge of extending their operation.”

Chris had always operated two SGT packhouses, part of a larger group; there was clearly a time when centralisation would have to happen and gradually the group shrank from 20 sites, then to 15, seven and finally three. The Brownings had a parcel of land adjacent to their August Pitts site and it was decided that this was the ideal location for the SGT centralised operation. While it is located on a small rural lane, the links to the major road network are good, there are few neighbours and it is surrounded by SGT member orchards. A small group was formed to tour relevant European packing operations and assessment grading machinery. It was decided that an Aweta grader suited the business best – the group has experience working with Aweta equipment. It is reliable and above all very quiet. A pre-grader system was essential for stock management enabling responsive packing.

The machine now installed is an Aweta Calistar grader supplied by NP Seymour which has a new transport system with the apples carried by grippers running above the fruit; this means all the machinery is above water and the fruit has a minimal drop into the selected channel. It was decided within SGT that a full water presizer was the way to go for optimal careful handling while giving maximum throughput capacities. It was well proven and satisfied concerns that all of the ‘tender’ varieties would be gently handled. The 21 water channels give an ample number of combinations for size, colour and quality of fruit. When one channel is full with the desired weight of apples the gate is opened and the apples flow out to the water bin re-filler, the size of fruit going into that outlet is switched to the next available outlet so the grading process is not held up.


Fruit can be graded on size, colour, weight and both internal and external defect, or any combination of these criteria. The INSCAN internal quality sorting system for internal disorders can measure up to 10 fruits per second on each lane of the grader so output is no issue. The quality cameras take multiple pictures of the fruit and the system distinguishes the stem and calix while looking for the user defined defects or blemishes. It is an outstanding addition to the SGT service to growers and retailers and will further raise the bar with regard to standards and quality guarantees.

Once a store of fruit has been graded the stock generated and the size profile established the sales team are able to give precise information to the buyer and technologist enabling the maximum utilisation of fruit.

Scorpion were involved in key areas of building design based on Cottage Farms’ requirements for a suitable safe and strategic layout of the new packhouse and distribution facility, working closely with project managers ICA to achieve these goals. Many important design features were incorporated into the building, to ensure its efficiency in working and the build to the highest specification available. Use of the available space on site and in the building itself was a strategic goal in the construction of the twin span building.

‘Bridge beams’ were designed and used to allow some supporting columns to be removed in key areas of the operation. These were designed by Scorpion’s engineer, and with careful consideration gave Cottage farms flexibility in the layout of the processing equipment. Within the new building, better use of storage space is combined with safer traffic movements in the building. The components used in the manufacture of the buildings for the ICA/August Pitts venture were sourced and manufactured in the UK to British Standards.

The flow of the building allows for good communication and a safe working environment into the second area of the site. This is well lit by sunlight or by the Thorlux LED units. The QC bar is open to the packhouse for visibility and accessibility, as is the segregated packaging area. It is clearly established now that flow wrap is loved by growers and customers alike; the reduction in packaging costs is primary, but it also looks better. The site is designed to do up to 75,000 cases/week. Principal trading weeks at present require around 50,000 cases, so the facility has ample capacity for the future.

Also key to the improved working environment is the fresh air supply system that was designed and installed to keep the occupants in the packing areas in a naturally fresh environment. The system provides tempered air, drawn in and adjusted from the outside climate. The volume of fresh air is based on the number of occupants to maximise efficiency. The clean air adds to the quality of the working environment. The steel work and ducting in the packhouse is powder coated white to maintain the aesthetics of the design and for easy cleaning. The electrical elements were also powder coated for dust prevention purposes.

The new refrigeration system for the chilled areas is a Direct Expansion (DX) using Refrigerant R134A which was chosen due to its strength in temperature control and low Global Warming Potential (GWP). Paul Kennett of STS said: “The DX is economic in its operational cost savings as it incorporates energy saving devices including inverters and electronic expansion valves. With environmental issues and F-Gas phase-out influencing many refrigeration installations, HFCs will be subject to further taxation meaning the DX is the way forward!”

This build has been an excellent example of true partnership working, with a strong lead from a marketing desk, good business vision, retailer support and trust in their project manager.