Anyone who doubts that farmers and growers are leading the way when it comes to investing in technology to support business growth just needs to take a look at the new cold store and packhouse complex at Flanders Farm, near Hoo.
The scale of the operation, the high tech nature of the machinery and the efficiency it will bring to the job of taking apples from field to supermarket shelf in the best possible condition, is a tribute to both the grower, AC Goatham & Son, and to the strength of the fruit industry in the South East.
The enormous new building, housing state-of-the-art equipment, highlights the industry’s determination to compete with growers on a global scale.
It was the fact that AC Goatham & Son expects to be harvesting top fruit from no fewer than a million extra trees within the next four years that persuaded father and son team Clive and Ross Goatham to bring forward the new building and commit to the multi-million pound investment.
The company’s steady growth and the increasing demand for top quality English apples and pears from its supermarket customers meant investing in the extra storage space had become an essential part of AC Goatham & Son’s long-term plan.
As a result, the new project has been completed just three years after the company unveiled 12 new cold stores and a state-of-the-art packhouse following its previous large-scale investment in the Kent top fruit industry.
That 2013 investment provided controlled atmosphere storage for 3,000 tonnes of apples and pears, and while at the time it looked capable of future-proofing the business for at least another five years, the company’s astonishing growth quickly saw it outgrow the new facility.
Plans for the next phase – already in the pipeline – were quickly taken down from the shelves, and main contractors The ICA Group began working on the new building, which has provided an extra 6,000 tonnes of storage, twice the capacity of the 2013 expansion.
The new building contains 21 controlled atmosphere stores, each large enough to hold 12,603 bins, a 1,500 sq. m chilled holding store, five ripening rooms, a chilled, racked storage area, three loading docks, a pre-grading hall and a label room.
Clive Goatham explained that the company had asked ICA to manage the contract “simply because there is no-one better out there,” adding: “This is a specialist industry and it needs a specialist approach, and that’s what Andrew Wills and his team bring.”
ICA managing director Andrew Wills said his company was “very proud to have been involved in such a significant project for the UK top fruit industry”.
He added: “Being main contractor has enabled us to deliver a very high quality facility, on time and on budget.
“We had been working on the design of the facility for over 12 months before the start on site, which involved an awful lot of planning and technical expertise.
“At ICA we have an in-house team of engineers and surveyors that can not only design and deliver the internal construction, refrigeration, electrical and controlled atmosphere installations, but also the groundworks and steel construction.
“This enables us to have complete control of every process during the construction period.
“We will be particularly interested to see the results of our installation of a further nine Safepods during the coming season, which we believe will add to the quality of stored fruit as well as the storage period.
“The installation of five specialist pear ripening rooms has also enabled AC Goatham & Son to develop its own customer base and we believe that pear ripening will play an ever more important role for pear growers across the UK in coming years,” Andrew Wills said.
“We wish Clive, Ross and the team every success in the future and look forward to working with them again soon.”
The £10m investment needed for the current expansion has been privately funded by the business, which has consistently reinvested profits back into the operation, helped by the sale of some surplus land for housing.
The company, which already employs an average of 280 people during the year, with a peak season total of 600, estimates that the new facility will create between 50 and 100 new jobs.
AC Goatham & Son, which also packs for 20 partner growers, handles 13 varieties of apple and three varieties of pear, and the new chilled, racked storage area will add further flexibility to the business model.
Clive Goatham has said the ultimate aim is to keep the packhouse running for 12 months of the year, not just to boost revenue but to make sure the company can retain the best staff and deliver the best quality produce to customers.
“We want to employ the best managers, quality control staff and forklift drivers, and we understand that they will only want to join us if we can make sure there is work for them all year round,” Clive said.
The new facility, in particular the new pre-grader and ripening rooms, will further extend the season, as Clive Goatham explained: “It moves our business a step closer to being able to supply British apples and pears for nearly 12 months of the year.
“The new facility, coupled with the new, earlier fruiting varieties we have planted, should soon allow us to have British apples in the supermarkets earlier in the season.”
The ripening rooms will be used to supply ‘ripe and ready’ Conference pears to allow AC Goatham & Son to take advantage of a market that is growing at around 15% a year.
“People these days expect things immediately, including their fruit, and they don’t want to have to leave pears for two or three days before eating them,” explained Ross Goatham. “Our new ripening rooms will allow us to give the customer more of what they want, and that’s got to be good for business.”
Sainsbury’s again topped the tables in 2015/16 for sales of English top fruit and currently has 26.8% of the market share, followed by Tesco with 25.6%, according to figures released earlier this month by English Apples and Pears.
With year-round fruit the ultimate goal for the industry, there is a certain irony in the fact that pears keep better in cold storage but run out earlier, simply because the country doesn’t grow enough of them.
To tackle that problem, AC Goatham & Son is planning to plant another 120 acres of Conference and will be growing the popular variety – as well as Cox and Gala apples – on replanted orchards at Turkey Hall Farm, just up the road from Flanders Farm.
“These more traditional varieties are still very popular among British consumers and it is important to grow a number of different varieties to help ensure British apples and pears remain in store for a greater part of each year to help displace the need for, and reliance on, imported fruit,” said Ross.
“We have also changed the way that we grow varieties such as Conference to ensure we are as competitive on yield, quality and price as the other European growers and we feel there is significant scope to increase the market share for British Conference pears.”
In total, AC Goatham & Son grows 2,000 acres of top fruit on sites across Kent – after adding a further 175 acres at Turkey Hall Farm, Hoo – as the company works with retailers to switch consumers over to buying more home-grown fruit.
AC Goatham & Son believes that Sainsbury’s support for British fruit in general and Conference pears in particular has played a vital part in the success of the industry.
“Sainsbury’s has just been named as the leading retailer of British apples and pears for the seventh year running, and as one of the top fruit growers in the country I am certain that it is the supermarket’s leadership in backing, supporting and investing in growers that is playing a major part in helping the industry thrive,” commented Clive.
While planning for the future is important, the team at AC Goatham & Son has been working hard to bring in this year’s harvest while keeping an eye on progress on the new building.
Although the apple harvest started about a week later than normal, the size and quality of the fruit is said to be very good, with the late, mid-September burst of above average heat and sunshine helping to ripen fruit still growing in the orchards.
The business grows Discovery, Zari – unique to AC Goatham & Son – Cox, Kanzi, Royal Gala, Braeburn, Cameo, Rubens, Bramley, Fuji, Worcester, Windsor and Spartan apples as well as Concorde, Comice and Conference pears.
Zari, featured on the front cover of this edition of South East Farmer and described as an “early season English eating apple that is crunchy, sweet, and juicy with a luscious red blush” is grown exclusively by AC Goatham & Son and is a blend of Elstar and Delbar Estivale varieties.
An estimated 60 tonnes of Zari a week were delivered to Sainsbury’s from early September, when they reappeared at the start of the 2016 season, and this is set to increase to more than 100 tonnes per week until around mid-December.
Zari was first introduced to Sainsbury’s in 2010, and this year’s fruit are around 5% bigger thanks to the warm summer.
The pre-grading hall included in the new cold store and packing complex is aimed at making the packing operation more efficient by allowing fruit to be brought out of storage, graded and then returned to chilled conditions in the racked storage area.
“The benefits of pre-grading fruit are considerable,” explained Ross. “At the moment, the only option we have when customers ask us for apples of a certain size is to bring fruit out of the cold store and pack the fruit which suits their requirements.
“Since that may be as little as five per cent of the fruit that has come out of storage, we then 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.”
The French-made, top-of-the-range MAF Roda pre-grader floats the apples gently through the grading equipment, scanning for imperfections at the same time, and then floats them gently back into storage, sorted by size and ready for packing.
The grader has been supplied by UK sales agent Mpack UK in conjunction wth Kent-based technical service agent Tech Ltd, which Mpack director Steven Mace said had given the company: “equipment from a global market leader with support from local people who are able to provide the best service and care possible.”
He added: “Following the successful installation of two six lane MAF Roda grading lines in 2013, AC Goatham & Son again selected MAF Roda Agrobotic in partnership with Mpack UK to supply fruit grading equipment for their new grading and packing facility.
“MAF has supplied a six-lane, 36-outlet, optical pre grading line capable of handling 60 apple bins per hour. This will allow the company to quality grade fruit both externally and internally while also measuring qualities such as size and colour to ensure the highest quality product is supplied to the customer.”
The grading line includes a state-of-the-art water filtration system and automated robots to empty and fill bins and put them in the right place on the grading line. MAF has also supplied Flow Wrap in-feed systems to allow the company to automate the supply of fruit to their Ulma Flow Wrap machines.
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