The cherry on the cake

Features Posted 19/07/21
Despite having been known and respected in the UK for more than ten years, Chilean fruit growers FGA (Fruit Growers Alianza) lacked one thing – English cherries.

FGA (Fruit Growers Alianza), an alliance between San Clemente and Gesex, added that missing ingredient in February 2020, when FGA Farming Ltd bought two farms near Faversham in Kent from F W Mansfield in a move that finally put the (English) cherry on the cake.

As veteran grower Peter Foster – who jokes that he was ‘sold’ to FGA Farming along with Norton Farm and Owen’s Court – is quick to point out, “English cherries are the best in the world, and this was the ideal way for the company not just to expand its season but to add to its range of top quality fruit.”

While FGA Farming’s focus is very much on quality, the investment by Luis Chadwick and Andrew Wallace from Chilean business San Clemente also added scale to the operation. Overnight, the company became the largest cherry grower in the UK, producing around 25% of the entire UK crop from its two farms – and it has since invested in extra land to further increase production.

With farms in Chile, Peru and now the UK, production covers more than 5,000 hectares in total. When it comes to cherries, FGA can supply fruit all year round and across all continents, with Chilean fruit available from November to March and UK cherries on stream from late June through to August and even into early September. A network of global growers fill the other gaps, allowing FGA to deliver what Luis Chadwick has called “a full cherry year”.

With cherries very susceptible to damage from the rain, the entire crop is grown in tunnels, but the UK’s unpredictable weather still makes life challenging, with 16 overnight frosts during a very cold April giving Peter and his team a few sleepless nights this year.

“In years gone by, before cherries were protected by tunnels, growers used to reckon that they would make money one year in five,” Peter said.

The fact that those growers knew they would make enough in the one good year to cover the losses incurred in the previous four highlights the value of the fruit – although the cost of protecting the crop is significant. With English cherries commanding a premium, though, FGA was keen to bring Peter on board to make the most of its Kentish investment.

“I was managing the farms for Mansfields when the Chilean visitors came over in 2019 to tour the orchards,” Peter recalled. “Andrew Wallace and Jon Clark (managing director of FGA) told me they would be there and just said they were interested in seeing how we did things here in Kent. “They spent all day in the orchards and asked me lots of questions, but it was only later that I realised they had been looking carefully at the potential benefit of investing in their own UK operation.”

The visitors liked what they saw, buying the farms to add Kentish cherries to the fruit they had been selling to customers here and in Europe and beyond from their UK base since 2009.

While the closeness of the fruit to the UK market allows it to reach domestic customers more quickly and in peak condition, the quality of the product is such that it is in demand around the world, with FGA supplying markets across Europe and as far afield as the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Once picked, the crop is sent by refrigerated lorry to F W Mansfield’s impressive packhouse at Nickle Farm, Chartham near Canterbury. There it is hydrocooled to bring the temperature down to six degrees – something that intrigues Peter.

“We spend the summer keeping the cherries safe from the rain because water can damage the crop, but then we cool them with water. It’s baffling, but it clearly works!” He commented.

While he may be baffled by the science behind hydrocooling, it’s clear within just a few minutes of meeting Peter that it’s probably the only thing about cherries and the art of growing them that he doesn’t understand intricately. But then he has been working with them for the past 50 years.

Born in 1955 on his parents’ farm at Oakwood Orchard, Bredgar, near Sittingbourne, Peter can remember picking cherries from the bottom of the ladder at the age of five. The family connection with cherries meanwhile goes back even further – as far as the 1800s, when cherries were picked from the tops of standard trees using ladders that necessarily became longer over the years.

At that time his father Tom Foster grew cherries at Oakwood Orchard and at nearby Moonfield Farm, but in 1966 he sold Oakwood and moved to Moonfield, where Tom and then Peter continued growing the fruit until 2004, when the farm was sold.

Peter had first worked with Paul Mansfield in 1996, when Paul was buying fruit from the Moonfield Farm operation, and when the top fruit specialist bought what had been the Guinness hop farm at Norton in 1999 and planted cherries on the land, he employed Peter as a contractor.

The pair got together again in 2010 when Paul asked Peter to manage Mansfield’s Norton Farm and Owen’s Court orchards.

“When FGA Farming bought the two farms a decade later I was part of the package, and now I still work closely with Mansfields as they store, grade and pack all our fruit at Nickle Farm, where Paul has said he wants to work with FGA to create a ‘cherry centre of excellence’ by sharing UK and Chilean knowledge,” Peter explained.

Also part of the deal was Peter’s spray operator Valdemar Rauba, who is a vital part of a team that ensures the best quality crop is grown at Norton Farm, as proved by a taste test on the first day of this summer’s harvest on 2 July, when the early ripening Korvic variety tasted superb.

Peter and his core team – what he calls the ‘hub’ – grow a range of varieties including Vanda, Kordia, Lapins and Karina along with Sweetheart and Regina and newer varieties such as Folfer and Poisdel, on 65 hectares at Norton Farm and a further 28 hectares at Owen’s Court.

In addition they are planting an additional 15 hectares of cherries on land at Owen’s Court that had been used by a neighbouring farmer, who until recently grew apples on part of it. FGA is grubbing out the apples and planting five hectares of cherries this autumn and a further ten in 2022/23.

The 70-plus hectares of land currently in full production is home to 70,150 trees, a remarkably accurate figure relayed surprisingly quickly by Charlie Hamby, whose official role is ‘farm compliance and admin’ but who clearly plays a vital role in supporting Peter right across the business. The extra land will be home to 15,000 more trees.

Alongside Valdemar, Charlie and hub team leader Florentina Patreu, Peter depends on Agrii’s Gary Saunders for agronomy advice. “Gary is a regular visitor and a very knowledgeable one,” he said. “We get very good support from him and from Agrii as we work hard to grow the best possible crop.” FGA also benefits from fertigation advice from Mike Stoker and 150 hives of bees brought in from Lincolnshire.

Florentina heads up the 14-strong hub team which works on the farms from March to October, doing everything from cleaning and preparing the tunnels to pruning and then picking the fruit.

While the hub can cope with the first few days of the picking season, it is supplemented within days of the start by up to 400 seasonal workers, mainly from the Ukraine and Romania and all supplied by Pro-Force. At that point some of the more experienced hub team members switch to tractor driving or take on more supervisory roles.

Once picked, chilled, graded and packed, the cherries are sold through Fruit Growers Alianza’s England-based European sales team, which has to match the volume of fruit – predicted a week ahead by Peter – with customer demand. It’s not always an easy task, but the skilled and experienced team always meets the challenge, made more tricky by the fruit’s relatively short shelf life.

FGA may shortly take on the additional challenge of marketing other UK growers’ fruit. As managing director Jon Clark explained: “Our business is built around marketing our own fruit, but we have recently been approached by other UK growers that, having seen what we are doing, want to join us on our journey.
“If their growing principles and desire to produce high quality fruit match ours then FGA will be happy to look further into those possibilities.”

Meanwhile roughly 60% of this year’s expected harvest of 1,500 tonnes – or 1.5 million kilos – of Kentish cherries is expected to be eaten in this country, with the other 40% being snapped up mainly by European buyers but also by those from further afield who are keen to enjoy the best. The fruit is packed under FGA’s own Buddy’s and Tudor Garden brands.

While last year proved to be a pretty good season for cherries it didn’t compare with 1976, which readers of a certain age will recall as being particularly long, hot and dry. “Once they start ripening, one good shower of rain means the cherries smile (split open) and the crop is lost,” Peter explained.

This year brought its own challenges, with a frosty April followed by a very wet May when growers would have preferred warm weather, but in Peter’s words: “Nature looked after us.”

Jon Clark agreed. “We all feared this could be ‘one of those years’, but we either made the right changes or got lucky, as the crop this year is a pleasant surprise.”

What seems clear following a visit to Norton Farm is that luck is unlikely to have played as large a part in the success of this year’s crop as the hard work and experience of the entire FGA Farming team.

Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic


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