Started by Devora Peake in 1938, the Peake Fruit and Boxford Farms estate on the Essex-Suffolk border is perhaps most well-known for being home to the Copella factory.
While the fruit juice company, which was a pioneering move to press unsaleable class three apples and pasteurise the juice to create a long-life not-from-concentrate product, was famously sold to Tropicana (now Pepsi) in the late-1990s, the wider fruit farming enterprise is still very much in the hands of the Peake family, with Devora’s children and grandchildren now managing the extensive orchards, glasshouses, packhouse and the Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa business. Spread across two sites, one in Boxford, near Sudbury, and the other in Ardleigh, near Colchester, the farm currently employs 30 full-time members of staff, with 250 seasonal workers and 120 packhouse employees. A small East Anglian, mixed fruit producer organisation, Plantsman PO, is also administered from Peake Fruit’s Ardleigh site with grower-members making use of the site’s storage and packing facilities.
Run under a custodian model, each generation of the Peake family has been dedicated to managing the business for the next generation; Devora, who emigrated to the UK, had a clear 50-year vision and always intended to create a secure place for her family to live and work. Currently, Devora’s grandson Robert Rendall is the managing director of Peake Fruit, and will be taking over the whole produce business from his mother, Susanna, from April 2020. While he is the only member of the third generation to be working in the business, he remains committed to ensuring that it benefits the entire family.
“Having a long-term vision drives us to grow and as the generations expand, and as we transition from the second to the third and the third to the fourth, we need to think a little bit more about our profitability and how we can provide a return to family members not directly involved in the farm,” said Robert. “Since 2000 we have really focused on totally modern production of top and soft fruit and have reinvested heavily into the farm with more plantings to increase our production levels.”
Goal to increase output
There are now around 3,600 tonnes of apples, 600 tonnes of strawberries, 245 tonnes of raspberries, 170 tonnes of cherries, 50 tonnes of blueberries, and a little bit of asparagus and rhubarb grown across the two sites and as well as moving toward popular varieties like Gala and Braeburn, the farm benefits from a range of progressive initiatives such as hail netting and has a number of traditional varieties grown on modern twin stem systems.
In fact, Peake Fruit is one of the UK’s largest growers of twin stem apples and is also one of the world’s first twin stem cherry growers, with 9ha of trees very much focused at the premium markets; for the last three years Robert has been able to get 70% over 28mm.
“Our soft fruit is marketed through Berry Gardens and we supply Morrisons directly as well as working with a wide range of the other major multiples,” said Robert. “This year hasn’t been particularly good, and we are still counting the cost. Fruit quality has been great, and we are very pleased with volumes, but with that comes sales stresses. Soft fruit sales have been really sticky at times and like a lot of growers we have had to lose crop, and the returns have been very low. The top fruit season looks amazing on our farm, there is really good colour and flavour and we are deliberately targeting the smaller 63mm to 73mm band.”
With the goal to increase the output of the orchards, glasshouses and polytunnels, Peake Fruit has consequently needed to invest in the fruit operation’s infrastructure and storage to deal with larger volumes of fruit, and having successfully secured planning permission and a 40% grant from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, Robert has just opened a new 1,800-tonne Dynamic Controlled Atmosphere (DCA) store on the Ardleigh site built and project managed by Thurlow Nunn Standen Ltd.
“We have 4,000 tonnes of Controlled Atmosphere cold storage on the farm, the latest block of which was put up in 2011, but we are expanding; we have more trees in the ground, so we needed more cold storage,” said Robert. “The new store is split into 16 chambers, all of which are DCA, with central chilled alleyways for additional storage. While the smaller chambers make it quite expensive, as well as apples, we are hoping to use the development for cherries and blueberries, to try and extend those seasons, and we are also already investing in niche varieties, such as Magic Star, Ariane and Daliclass, and as these varieties grow and develop it is important that we can provide stock all season long.”
After extensive research, Robert appointed the Specialist Installations Division of Thurlow Nunn Standen Ltd (TNS) to project manage and build the turn key project. GPL Construction were employed for the supply and installation of the high-tech electrical doors and sealed cold store panels. JD Cooling designed and installed all refrigeration services with the controlled atmosphere provided by UKCA utilising DCA technology.
Strong environmental ethos
As a modern, forward-thinking business, Robert has employed a lot of green, environmental initiatives across the farm. Peake Farm benefits from its own 1.25MW Anaerobic Digestion (AD) unit, which is fed with apple pomace from the juice factory as well as locally grown maize. This powers the Copella factory, the golf club, hotel and spa, as well as the cold stores at Boxford. Polytunnels and glasshouses are heated with biomass from three local forests, digestate is also used on the orchards and water is recovered, with the farm benefiting from its own reservoir.
With this in mind, when it came time to construct the new DCA store, Robert was keen to stick to these environmental principals and has opted to avoid using harmful Hydro Fluoro Carbons (HFC) gases. Instead, the cooling system from JD Cooling utilises two super-efficient, future-proof propane chillers supplying a total of 20 ceiling mounted glycol coolers, one to each CA store and four to the corridor areas. All coolers are fitted with variable speed fan control and the propane chillers have been fitted with heat recovery in order to deliver warm glycol to the coolers for efficient defrosting.
JD Cooling’s works included the total installation of the secondary cooling system using food safe glycol designed specifically to provide ultra-stable temperature and humidity control which, in conjunction with the DCA systems, will provide optimal storage conditions for the product in each of the chambers, extending storage life, increasing quality and minimising weight loss.
“It is a very high-end installation and a big commitment which added another 7% on to the cost of the project. We could have done things more cheaply, but we have very strong environmental goals and to go down that route would have ultimately gone against the ethos of the wider business,” said Robert.
Quick and precise
With over 100 DCA stores now installed in the UK, Robert selected UKCA to install Isolcell’s market leading equipment. Dynamic Controlled Atmosphere enables growers to create the ideal conditions for the medium-long term storage of any kind of fruit by allowing growers to lower the oxygen levels in storage rooms to between 0.4% and 0.7% (for apples) without the risk of hypoxia and correlated physiological disorders.
During the storage period using the Isolcell software, called Isostore®, it is possible to set and adapt the values of gases in a dynamic manner based on the maturity, annual climatic variations, different origins and varying respiratory rhythms of the monitored fruit. This technology uses fluorescence detection sensors to dynamically control the atmosphere and allows to store fruit at its lowest respiration rate.
These sensors called Fluorescence Interactive Response Monitor (FIRM) measure the amount of light emitted by the fruit’s peel in the form of fluorescence. This enables the system to exactly pinpoint the Anaerobic Compensation Point (ACP), an essential parameter in determining the minimum level of O2 to be maintained in the room during storage. The use of these sensors ensures the quick and precise determination of the ACP both online and in real time, making the use of Isostore® technology both very easy and very safe.
Despite having lost some time at the start of the project, due to the build’s close proximity to a rail line, and the locality of an Anglian Water rising sewage main the farm’s first DCA block was handed over just in time for the 2019 top fruit harvest and is currently being filled with Gala.
“James Williams and Jeremy Nunn at Thurlow Nunn Standen have been marvellous and very helpful, project managing the whole development from start to finish,” said Robert. “In fact, all our suppliers have been great and have been really flexible with some of the curveballs which I threw in and the issues we have encountered throughout the project, which were completely outside of their control.”
Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic