At first glance, it would be difficult to see much of a link between a fruit grower and a leading car manufacturer.

For Bridge, Canterbury-based Farmcare, though, learning from the likes of Jaguar Land Rover is part of an ongoing commitment to innovation and growth.

“We attended workshops given by industry leaders because we know that every business can learn from the best,” explained Paul Smith, farm manager.

“As a world-class business, we pride ourselves on innovation, on looking for new and better ways of doing things and on producing the best quality product, and that means listening and learning from experts.”

When it comes to innovation, Farmcare leads the way in the field as well as in its approach to business. Alongside continuing to trial new varieties of top fruit, the grower is currently trialling peaches, a crop more usually found in countries like Spain.
“It’s a fruit that has been grown in Victorian walled gardens for many years, and it’s a move that would take advantage of our increasingly warm climate, but as yet it’s too early to say if it will succeed.

“As growers we are always looking for the ‘next big thing’, which is why we currently have several plots devoted to new varieties of apple. We have a strong business focus, but at the end of the day we are first and foremost growers, and that’s what we love doing best.”

The business has a long pedigree after being set up as the Co-operative Society’s farming operation in 1936. Since buying the business in 2014, the Wellcome Trust has set out to make it a leaner, more commercially focussed operation.
Paul commented: “Investment into the infrastructure on the farm has continued with support from our shareholder. Leadership focus has increased and our operational focus on the farm is clearer than ever.

“We are a commercial enterprise, seeking to innovate and produce world class fruit for our customers – and we’ve worked hard to diversify our impressive customer portfolio while focussing on developing our position at the forefront of quality fruit growing in the UK.’’

“Farmcare grows fruit, vegetables and arable crops on ten sites across the UK, with the Highland Court site at Bridge focusing on top fruit, stone fruit and blackcurrants, which it grows for Lucozade Ribena Suntory.”

As a major supplier to UK supermarkets, as well as to the likes of Suntory, Farmcare is committed to quality processes and is accredited to ISO 14001. It is Red Tractor assured, has full LEAF accreditation and is ‘gold’ badged under the Tesco Nurture scheme.

“As well as meeting or exceeding all statutory assurance schemes, we also focus on the individual customer service requirements of the businesses we supply.” Said Gavin. “We are focused on the quality of the fruit from start to finish and we aim to be an industry leader.”

That determination includes a commitment to continual investment in new and replacement orchards as well as on trialling new varieties. Farmcare is already the UK’s largest producer of Junami apples.

Highland Court and its three satellite sites is one of two fruit businesses within Farmcare, with the other one based at Tillington in Herefordshire.

At the main, Highland Court, site, Farmcare grows apples – Gala, Braeburn, Opal, Cox, Bramley and Junami – pears, blackcurrants on 65 hectares, eight hectares of Victoria plums and a hectare of apricots.

Paramour Farm near Ash also grows blackcurrants, pears and Braeburn apples, protected by hail netting in a move that inevitably guaranteed that the site has not seen hail since, as Gavin noted with a wry smile.

Upper Horton Farm, near Chartham, features apples on a new post and rail system covering 27 hectares and a further eight hectares of blackcurrants, while Felderland, just outside Deal, is home to apples, blackcurrants and pears as well as to a six-hectare ‘pick your own’ site that includes cherries, berries, apples and cobnuts.

Paul and Gavin are part of a 16-strong, full-time team that runs the Highland Court operation and includes foremen Dave Chapman and Adam Robinson, who are supported by up to 110 seasonal workers, mainly trusted eastern Europeans.
With Brexit negotiations currently leading to uncertainty around the future source of harvest teams, Gavin pointed out a ‘double whammy’ caused by the referendum decision to leave Europe.

“Apart from the fact that no-one is quite sure what any new regulations will allow, the fall in the pound means that this country is no longer that attractive to some of the pickers who used to come over,” he said. “Polish pickers, in particular, can earn about the same staying at home.”

Gavin also began his career at Highland Court as a seasonal worker at the age of 18, but the following year was offered a job as a full-time craftsman, a role that saw him involved in all aspects of the business, from spraying to picking supervision.
Twenty years on and assistant manager since 2015, he is as enthusiastic as ever about working for Farmcare Trading. “Any kind of farming or growing is not just a job but a way of life,” he explained. “It’s particularly rewarding to supervise the harvest after spending six or seven months working hard to grow the best possible crop – and I really enjoy meeting so many interesting characters.”

Paul earned himself a BSc Hons degree in Environmental Science at Plymouth University, spending a year in Canada as part of his studies, and began his career not in an orchard but working for Kent County Council.

He worked for the Public Rights of Way team and then spent time looking after Section 106 planning agreements before going ‘back home’ to the family fruit business, Loddington Farm Ltd, in 2008.

“My brother James was busy marketing the fruit and setting up a new producer organisation, so I rejoined the family firm as the production manager,” he explained. “Earlier this year, with the business on an even keel and James no longer so involved off the farm, I was able to take the opportunity to join Farmcare.

“It’s great to be working with fruit rather than local government planning legislation and I am looking forward to helping the business move forward.”

This year’s frosts – particularly the mid-April chill – had a varied impact on the different orchards, with the Braeburn more affected than Gala and plums confounding the experts by setting a full crop despite early fears. “It will be interesting to see how the harvest turns out, but we certainly could have done without the frost,” said Gavin.

Total annual cropping across the four sites is around 5,000 tonnes of top fruit, 300 tonnes of blackcurrants, 80 tonnes of plums and ten to 15 tonnes of apricots.

While the business uses Agrovista, Hutchinsons and independent advisers for its agronomy, another part of its forward-thinking approach to growing is in its focus on working with nature’s own agronomists.

“While we are keen on using technology where it can improve the product, we also work with nature and promote biodiversity wherever possible,” said Paul.

“We use weather stations to calculate the risk posed by pests or disease and we will only spray fruit if we think it’s essential to do so. We also encourage natural predators, even going as far as moving earwigs from strawberry plants, where they are harmful, to top fruit orchards where they create a benefit by eating pests.

“Similarly we allow nettles to grow wild on the edges of our orchards because they harbour beneficial insects, and we encourage bees as much as possible. We would always prefer to work with nature than spray with chemicals.

“Where technology can make a difference, though, we welcome it with open arms. As an example, we use a Dutch-built Munckhof Pluk-O-Trak to make picking easier for the workforce and reduce the amount of handling of top fruit. It’s a balance between investing in modern technology and harnessing nature’s own workforce.”