Major player in the top fruit world

Features Posted 09/11/20
Top fruit grower Tom Hulme on the need to keep ahead of the game and how he is going about it.

Back in 2014, top fruit grower Tom Hulme stood in a brand new cold storage complex capable of holding 9,000 bins of fruit and broke out in a cold sweat.

“I said to myself – ‘you realise that for the rest of your life you are going to have to fill this every year’,” he recalled, before adding: “Two years later we extended the block to hold another two thousand bins…”

The 2014 project was just the start of a carefully planned campaign of expansion that has seen A C Hulme & Sons, who farm at Ash, just outside Dover in Kent, become a major player in the top fruit world.

The latest phase in that expansion – solidly rooted in a commitment to sustainability – is an impressive new grading, packing and distribution complex that will this year handle around 12,500 tonnes of apples and pears.

It was ‘complex’ in more ways than one, with main contractors Wealden AM working closely with Tom to make sure that it was ‘business as usual’ for the grower while delivering the massive new building on time - and partly on the footprint of existing packing and distribution facilities that had to be operational until the very last moment.

The expansion at Hoaden Court Farm has been driven by the clear vision of Tom, who, while he grew up on the family farm, spent 12 years working in banking before returning to play his part in the business just nine years ago.

With no formal training in agriculture or horticulture, Tom nonetheless realised that in the competitive world of top fruit, standing still was simply not an option and scalability and sustainability were the crucial elements needed for success.

“I’ve had no training, but I grew up on the farm, I love growing fruit and my experience in banking means that I understand business economics,” he said. “I feel I can spot a sensible strategy and then execute it well, and that’s what I have tried to do with the farm.”

That strategy has seen the amount of fruit grown and distributed by A C Hulme & Sons double and then double again since 2008, with more expansion on the horizon. The new building at Hoaden Court is about more than just capacity, though, having also streamlined the operation and provided a range of modern facilities that meet the sustainability criteria at the heart of everything the family is seeking to achieve in their farming enterprises.

The highly experienced Wealden AM team, which played a vital role in co-ordinating the wide range of sub-contractors and suppliers involved in the operation, has delivered what Tom described as a “seriously marvellous shed”, together with a smaller building housing refrigeration equipment for the cold stores.

While Wealden AM director Sean Chaplin, who headed up the team, commented: “Even the small shed is a big shed”, the main structure is a 44m single span building that is an impressive 65m long. It features four loading bays with dock levellers, a suite of offices and space for box-making and packaging equipment on a mezzanine floor and modern, well-specced welfare and hygiene facilities for growing numbers of staff.

Tom described the new packhouse, built around a Greefa six-lane Combisort pre-grader with 22 water channels and four robotic Burg Machinefabriek water tanks as in-feeds for dedicated bagging and packing lines, as “future-proof”, although that isn’t to say he doesn’t have plans to keep expanding the business.

“I wanted our entire post-orchard operation to be fit for the future, reflecting our existing growing and storage operations, not just for the business but for our employees, customers and neighbours,” he said. “Our previous packing operation was effective and profitable, but it wasn’t scalable, and you have to keep investing if you want to stay competitive in this marketplace.”

AC Hulme & Sons’ main customer is supermarket chain Lidl GB, to which it currently delivers more than 9,000 tonnes of apples and pears each year, including fruit bought in from other growers. He described Lidl as “very supportive and fair” and clearly has a good relationship with the budget retailer.

The remarkable growth in the amount of fruit picked at Hoaden Court, from 10,000 bins in 2012 to 14,500 in 2015 and 17,000 in 2020, has all been achieved on the same area of land. A C Hulme & Sons crops 125 hectares of top fruit and a further 25 hectares of cherries, plums and apricots, but while the area has stayed the same, the output has doubled.

“We are now consistently producing 70 to 80 tonnes per hectare on well over half our apple growing area rather than the less than 40 tonnes we used to achieve,” said Tom, who expects to grade around 40,000 bins this year and market around 35,000 under the A C Hulme & Sons name.

He puts the remarkable growth in productivity down to four factors. “We have some natural advantages on this site, with ideal soil and light for top fruit, we have a clear focus on yield and productivity and we are clear in our own minds about what we are trying to achieve,” he said. “And fourthly, we only plant into virgin land to avoid diseases present in the soil. You ideally need at least a ten year gap between removing one orchard and planting the next.”

A C Hulme & Sons – a mixed farming business which also runs successful arable and cattle operations – grows the early cropping Robijn variety, which can be harvested in August, along with Cameo, Braeburn and Cox, which still makes up 15% of the farm’s output. Gala, though, accounts for 50% of the crop, while Conference pears are another mainstay.

Tom’s twin focus on sustainability and profitability is behind his ambition to keep as much of the growing, packing and distribution operation in his own hands, driving standards up, avoiding middle-men margins and reducing his carbon footprint at the same time.

That goal led him to plant a trial nursery at Brook Farm focusing on reducing canker in commercial orchards. “If you can grow young trees in a less intensive way and then move them just a few metres, rather than putting them in a cold store for many months and shipping them from Holland or Italy before planting them in totally different soil and climate conditions, that must be less stressful for the trees and help them get off to a better start,” he said.

The three-hectare nursery was planted in 2017. While the results are yet to be fully evaluated, Tom said it was “so far so good”. He added: “We don’t want to over stretch ourselves, but we are looking at every aspect of our growing, packing and distribution operations, including transport to depot, to see how we can reduce outside help and create an integrated in-house business from start to finish. That way we can control costs and quality.”

That ambition was behind the new grading, packing and distribution complex now unveiled at Hoaden Court Farm, adding another piece to the expansion jigsaw that Tom began working on in 2014. “The final piece of the operation, post-cold store, was missing, and that was restricting our growth,” he said. “We couldn’t grow more fruit because we couldn’t pack it, let alone offer our customers flexibility in terms of packaging options.”

“Now we can grade 100,000 bins a year and pack 100,000 cases a week and our operation is completely flexible in terms of different packaging formats. Given that we are currently packing 25,000 cases a week, that shows how much more we can grow.”

Tom is confident that the extra capacity will be needed because he feels there has been “a huge change” in UK buying habits over the past 20 years. “People increasingly understand and care about provenance and they want to buy British. The marketplace is far more supportive. People care about food miles and they want to buy British fruit when they can.”

Before Tom was invited to join the business in 2011, A C Hulme & Sons was in the safe hands of his father Tim and his uncle, Humphrey, who worked closely in the fruit business with grower Alan Smith, who retired in 2011, the year Tom returned. Humphrey still runs the business alongside Tom and his brother Edward. “I had had enough of what I had been doing and the time was right for a change,” he recalled. “The family didn’t want to sell up but needed to think about succession – my father moved to South Africa in 2015 – and having grown up on the farm I decided I would like to come back and help with the business.”

At that time A C Hulme & Sons had enough cold storage for little more than 1,000 bins of fruit and a packhouse built in the 1990s that was showing its age. “My father and uncle asked me to look at the fruit side of the business and it was clear that we needed to invest in controlled atmosphere cold storage to support our expanding growing operation,” said Tom.

“Planning permission was far from straightforward as we wanted to build a 65m by 40m building on a blank site, but as there was a clear agricultural need, Dover Council agreed the plans after giving them a lot of careful consideration.”

The stores were big enough to hold 9,000 bins, and it was when Tom stood in the new building for the first time that he realised the challenge he had given himself to grow enough fruit to fill them every year. It was a challenge that was easily met, though, and just two years later the stores were extended, creating space for another 2,000 bins.

Another two years on, the bulldozers were back on site once again, building dynamic controlled atmosphere stores to hold a further 3,000 bins as A C Hulme & Sons signalled their clear intentions to compete with the biggest players in the top fruit world.

This year’s 4,500 sq m expansion of the business’ packing and distribution operation was overseen on site by Wealden AM’s Contracts Director Nick Field, who also had to cope with the twin pressures of one of the wettest winters on record and the coronavirus lockdown, which began four or five months into the project. “Overcoming these and other technical challenges required numerous site meetings with client and contractors,” Nick recalled. “It was important to meet face to face because of the complexities of the contract and the timescales involved. Our focus was always on the client’s vision.”

Despite those challenges and the need to phase the work so that Tom could have access to an existing pre-grader that was within the footprint of the new building until the very last minute, the job ran to schedule and was completed on time.

“We had to be flexible and work very closely with all the other contractors on site in order to disrupt operations as little as possible and allow for a seamless transition between old and new,” explained Sean Chaplin. “There was a fair bit of overlap between the old buildings and the new – and we also had to be aware that Tom was trying to run his business while we were building a massive new structure in the middle of his yard.”

Wealden AM’s experience and its existing good relationship with other contractors was enough to ensure the job was finished on time and on budget despite the challenges. Sean explained: “Sometimes it’s a case of persuading the groundworks contractor, for instance, to lay a particular area of concrete out of sequence because that will allow a number of other people to get where they need to be and get on with their jobs.”

The groundworks were in the care of Torran Construction, which Tom said had “done a very good job”, while he was also impressed with the work of contractors including Orchard Cooling, GPL, which provided the white walling and doors, and BMS Electrical Contractors.

Well before the first bulldozer arrived on site, Wealden AM worked closely with planning partner Simon Kenny of Rural Partners, who worked closely with Tom to design the building and gain planning permission. Sean commented: “Simon and the team used their technical knowledge to ensure the project was well thought out and would deliver exactly what Tom was looking for. Wealden AM was responsible for procuring the steel frame building and incorporating all the important elements that had to be designed into it.”

As work progressed on site, Nick Field ensured that the team took a flexible approach to ensure nothing interfered with the existing operation of the site and to resolve any issues that arose.

One of the most challenging aspects of the job was ensuring that all the services, including power, water, drainage, air and data, were buried within the floor slab, something that Tom was keen to see in order to keep the area tidy and uncluttered. “You only get one chance to get it right, and that is at the very start of the building’s life,” he commented.

For the Wealden AM team it meant very careful calculations to ensure that all the services were available as close as possible to where they were needed, something that was tricky when dealing with a wide variety of pre-grading and packing equipment.

“As well as being hidden, it has to be accessible in case of a problem,” Sean remarked. “It was a big part of the operation and we got it right first time. It’s just a pity you can’t see any of it!”

The project was completed in two phases, with the packhouse and mezzanine offices finished first and the chilled pre-grader area and dispatch area following close behind. “It was good to work with such a great team of people,” Sean added. “This kind of project needs good relationships and first-rate contractors, and that’s what we enjoyed here.

“At the end of the day we all wanted to hand over the best possible new facility for the client and I believe that’s what we achieved.”

But the story is not told just yet. Assuming planning permission is granted, Tom is now planning a further 9,500 bins of new long-term cold storage on the site as A C Hulme & Sons continues to grow.

When it comes to growing more fruit to fill those stores, the business has options on its arable land. It has already planted 30ha of land at Brook Farm, Wingham with high intensity wire and post apple and pear orchards and is planning to increase that to at least 50ha in the next few years.

“We are determined to keep growing, to focus on quality and to deliver great fruit to the UK consumer,” Tom concluded.

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic

<a href=”https://issuu.com/kelseygroup/docs/sef12dec20/33>Click here to read the full feature on AC Hulme & Sons


Tweets from @southeastfarmer