Anyone who attended the 2013 opening of AC Goatham & Son’s impressive new cold store and packhouse complex at Flanders Farm, just outside Hoo, might have thought the family business could afford to sit back and relax for a decade or two.

The 12 new cold stores and state-of-the-art packhouse represented a multi-million pound investment in the Kentish top fruit industry and provided controlled atmosphere storage for 3,000 tonnes of apples and pears.

But even as Justin King, chief executive officer of Sainsbury’s, was cutting the ribbon to unveil the new building, the father and son team that heads up the business was looking to the future.

The result of that forward planning is a new building, now taking shape on adjoining land, that dwarfs the 2013 development and will provide an extra 6,000 tonnes of storage, adding twice the capacity of the earlier building.

“In actual fact we knew before we finished the last one that we would need more storage and we already had plans for phase two. We didn’t expect to bring it on stream quite as quickly, but we need to keep up with production,” explained partner Ross Goatham, son of senior partner Clive.

Any thoughts that adding 200% more storage space within three years of opening an already impressive new facility are quickly dispelled, though, by Ross’ next comment.

“Because we are continuing to plant new orchards across Kent, we will have one million new trees by 2020 – and that fruit has to go somewhere. Add to that the fact that we always want to make sure we are delivering the best quality product and we have to keep moving forward.”

Part of the reason the plans were already at blueprint stage in 2013 is the fact that the business knew there could be planning hurdles to jump. “The first Flanders Farm development took 11 years to bring to fruition, but Medway Council was quick to give approval to phase two because they can see the benefit in terms of local jobs and the environment,” Ross commented.

“Although the plans were ready, we had hoped the 2013 development would last us five years, but the business has been growing so strongly that we brought it forward.”

It means the massive 8,442 sq m building, once again entrusted to main contractors the ICA Group, headed up by Andrew Wills, will be up and running by this year’s harvest.

The new facility will contain 21 controlled atmosphere stores, each capable of holding 12,603 bins of fruit, a 1500 sq m chilled holding store, five ripening rooms, a chilled, racked storage area, three loading docks, a pre-grading hall and a label room.
With the weather threatening at one stage to blow the contract off schedule, an innovative approach to the external concrete meant that the entire area was finished in one week instead of two months and usable in just 48 hours, speeding up the project considerably.

Sub contractor Gallagher used the new ‘roller pact’ concrete system, making AC Goatham & Son development one of the first in Kent to benefit from the technique, while the inside of the building was finished with a power float floor.

The building, a twin span portal frame with steel mezzanine floors, was erected by Wealden AM and described by company boss Rob Kendall as “one of the largest farm-based buildings in the UK for the grading storage and distribution of apples.” It is also the first complex to include controlled atmosphere stores, pre-graders, ripening rooms and a chilled despatch area within the same building.

“We were delighted to be awarded the contract to design and construct the new building for AC Goatham & Son,” said Rob.

“The building not only houses specialist controlled atmosphere storage but a state-of-the-art grader and chilled distribution area combined with QC area and offices – this is quite a building.

“The logistics around such a large structure were, to say the least, demanding. You really are almost in the English Channel on this site and the wind can be very strong, even in the summer.”

Rob explained that the key to a successful build was to put on extra labour when conditions were reasonable, a tactic which involved a fair amount of weekend working, but which paid dividends in the end.

“I’m proud of everyone who contributed to the build, in my company, our fabricators and all those in the on-site teams, it was a monumental effort by all concerned,” he added.

The structure was designed using the latest computer technology allied to Wealden AM’s practical experience in fruit storage and distribution builds.

“The size and scale of the building was one thing, but to incorporate so many elements into one building is not that common and the design elements of the different facilities are quite demanding,” said Rob. “The weights imposed on the structure by the insulation panel roof, refrigeration coolers and even the drainage from the roofs into a central valley gutter are considerable and had to be allowed for.”

Rob was particularly pleased that all the steel was made and fabricated in the UK. “It’s still the best quality in the world,” he commented.

“We used ICA to manage the contract simply because there is no-one better out there,” explained Clive Goatham. “This is a specialist industry and it needs a specialist approach, and that’s what Andrew and his team bring.

“We have worked with ICA for 25 years and can’t see any reason to change something that isn’t broken. They have done a great job for us in the past and are on course to deliver another great job on this occasion.”

The pre-grading hall included in the current build is a vital part of the installation and set to boost efficiency at AC Goatham & Son by a considerable degree. It allows fruit to be brought out of storage, graded and then returned to chilled conditions in the racked storage area.

“The benefits of being able to pre-grade fruit are considerable,” explained Ross. At the moment, when customers ask us for apples of a certain size we bring fruit out of the cold store and pack the fruit which suits their requirements. The problem is that it may be as little as five per cent of the fruit that has come out of storage, which means we have to find a market for the other 95%.

“By pre-grading and re-racking according to size, quality and colour, we can immediately find whole bins containing the right apples and just pack what we need. It’s a much more cost effective way of doing things and represents an investment in future efficiency.”

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