In one sense, the South East’s fruit growers have never had it so good. Presumably because their produce tastes better but perhaps also because the public is realising the environmental daftness of flying fruit halfway around the world, and our apples and pears are increasingly popular.
The public demand for UK top fruit has been matched by a supportive reaction from the supermarkets, which seem happy to fly the flag for our top-notch top fruit.
What may not be quite as apparent to the country’s increasingly detached consumers as it is to the growers, is that while the public is getting a year-round taste for Gala, Braeburn, Jazz, Conference and the rest, the season itself is comparatively short.
The paying public may neither know nor care, but the fact that shoppers are able to buy a bag of Kent-grown apples in May is a remarkable tribute to the science of fruit storage – and the millions of pounds invested by the industry in modern cold store facilities.
The danger for the industry is that while the leading growers and packhouses are modernising their facilities and taking advantage of the opportunities, reports suggest that overall investment is well below where it needs to be.
Efficient, environmentally friendly new storage is essential if British growers are to continue to improve their share of the market, support food security and meet the needs of customers in the future – but figures suggest there currently isn’t enough of it.
A 2014 cross-industry report pointed out that the 44 stores constructed that year provide enough storage for just 9% of the cropping capacity across the UK that season.
For those growers and packhouses that take advantage of what is available, cold stores, controlled atmosphere stores and, more recently, dynamic controlled atmosphere (DCA) installations continue to revolutionise the industry. New technology means top fruit can be stored for longer than ever, with year-round fruit remaining the ultimate goal.
ICA’s Andrew Wills is confident that his company’s Safepod technology – its own version of DCA – will soon see the likes of Gala on the shelves beyond even the impressive June finish currently achievable.
Both the larger players like ICA and family businesses such as UKCA and NV Barden Refrigeration are helping growers keep fruit in top condition for longer while introducing technology that is making storage more energy efficient.
But not everyone is taking advantage of the technology. The report referred to earlier suggested that the UK had just over 600,000 bins of storage of varying ages, with just 132,000 of those being in modern, controlled atmosphere stores.
That figure will have risen over the past two years, but there is still a gap that needs to be closed if the UK and the South East is to reap the rewards of the country’s taste for English fruit – and the stores that were getting old in 2014 are two years older now. As an aside, two thirds of the storage capacity quoted at that time – 400,000 bins – was in the South East.
It’s not just customers who benefit from the fact that apples and pears can be kept in peak condition for many months. No-one wants to have to release all their fruit onto the market at harvest, when prices drop faster than the last windfall in an autumn gale.
Modern varieties are better cropping and are designed to keep better and longer – in the right conditions. Storage charges can be high for growers who store off-farm, while growers with older, inefficient stores face rising energy costs.
Meanwhile the young orchards planted in the past few years to reflect the demand for English apples and pears have yet to reach peak capacity, putting further pressure on existing stores and reinforcing the message that investment is needed.
There is another issue facing the country, which is the possibility of import tariffs being imposed on fruit should the country’s much-debated divorce from the European Union not prove to be a happy one.
Storing more top fruit for longer could help protect the consumer from the worst effects of such a fall-out, as well as boosting the domestic fruit industry. Our growers can produce plenty of fruit; it’s year-round storage that is the problem.
The same is not true for Conference pears, of course. They store well, and the only reason they aren’t available later in the season is the fact that growers don’t produce enough, although there are moves being made in some quarters to change that.
For growers, then, cold storage at least – and controlled atmosphere storage from choice – is essential, and becoming increasingly more so.
The question for those growers is where to go for the optimum solution to their needs. Should they turn to a big-name, one-stop-shop supplier that will erect the building, fit the insulated panels, specify the system and install the whole thing?
Or is the better option to turn to smaller, specialist suppliers who can perhaps provide a more refined focus on their own area of expertise and work with other professionals who have their own niche areas?
And where to find them? Typing “controlled atmosphere storage south east” into the most commonly used web browser won’t give growers much help. Apart from a link to a feature in a 2014 edition of this magazine, there is only one relevant cold store supplier listed on the first page.
While that’s all credit to the ICA Group for getting its name out there, it hardly represents a comprehensive list of potential suppliers – although Marden-based Freshcold does appear at the top of page two.
In truth there is a wealth of suppliers out there, all with their own expertise and their own preferred solutions to the challenge of keeping fruit at its best for longer.
Costs vary – with higher capital costs typically resulting in lower running costs over the lifetime of the system – and so does the environmental focus of the companies vying for growers’ business.
While all suppliers have to meet certain criteria regarding the environmental credentials of the system they install, there are inevitably some who give it greater prominence and some for whom cost is the greater driver.
Freshcold’s John Haffenden is one of those who see environmental performance as crucial, not just because he believes it is critical to the future of the planet but also because in the longer term it makes the plant more cost-effective.
“Using less energy makes the installation more sustainable, but it also makes it more efficient and cheaper to run, and that’s got to be a good thing for the grower as well as the planet,” he commented.
ICA boss Andrew Wills believes growers need to think carefully before going for the cheaper option, since “more efficient installations usually mean better quality fruit, particularly when it is stored for longer, as well as producing lower running costs in the longer term.”
John Haffenden is also one of those who takes a hands-on, engineering-led approach to his cold store projects, making the point that it is only by understanding the technology that you can recommend the right solution to the client.
His own skills extend to inventing bits of the equipment he installs, including a system that uses ‘free’ heat generated by the refrigeration process to defrost cold store chillers at regular intervals.
JD Cooling’s commercial engineering director Robert Keal believes that growers and packers who don’t invest in future-proofed technology may find themselves out on a limb at some point.
He has been focusing on low-impact secondary refrigeration systems for the past ten years or more, helping growers to avoid using harmful HFC-based refrigerants which are likely to be phased out entirely at some point.
“While the initial costs for this type of system may appear to be higher, the lifetime costs are lower, with a greatly reduced environmental impact,” he said. “There are already some supermarkets whose ‘gold standard’ requires no HFCs to be used in the cooling chain and growers need to think twice before ignoring that trend.”
Recent contracts completed locally by JD Cooling include a rapid cooling system together with chilled stores and despatch area for grower and packer WB Chambers at Langley, near Maidstone.
Another independent supplier who believes in putting together an expert-led solution is Ken Hatch of UKCA, who has been coming up with controlled atmosphere solutions for over 35 years.
He also believes the UK needs more state-of-the-art storage. “Growers are moving from traditional apples like Coxes to varieties like Braeburn and Gala which produce more fruit, store well and give a better return to the grower.
“If the industry is going to take advantage of that, it has an ongoing need to upgrade storage,” he said.
Ken, who runs the family firm with sons Jon and Graham, believes that independent companies can offer a distinct advantage in being able to bring in experts in each area rather than using one in-house team.
While UKCA specialises in scrubbing systems, CA techniques and control instrumentation, the firm has a good relationship with Thurlow Nunn Standen’s Specialist Installations Division, which can supply complete project management through to the cold store building.
UKCA also works closely with GPL Construction for white-wall paneling and CA store construction, and JD Cooling for its expertise in specialist refrigeration.
“These independent companies can deliver the very best package by bringing together the right team of expert suppliers for each application,” said Ken.
UKCA recently worked with another expert team including cold store specialist W D Hobden, Castle Commercial Refrigeration and builders GJ Elgar Construction to build 35 DCA-CF stores in Kent, including a suite for top grower Simon Mount at New Barn Farm, Stourmouth.
His own expertise in control systems is highlighted by the fact that, with John Haffenden, Ken founded STS, the specialist company later bought by ICA and now incorporated within that company’s comprehensive in-house portfolio.
Shaun Jupp, of Castle Commercial Refrigeration, is another supplier who loves a challenge. “If it’s an awkward shape or needs some unusual modifications to make it fit, we just see that as the next challenge.
The Castle team also prides itself on cutting costs by reducing the gas charge. “There are all sorts of ways of saving money, including shortening the pipe runs and using smaller pack systems, and in my experience that’s the kind of thing a smaller supplier will take the time to focus on.”
One of the first decisions growers need to make is over the choice between a simple cold store and a CA store, with the latter increasingly becoming the more obvious choice.
CA storage seals the apples or pears in an environment that contains around 2% oxygen and has the temperature, humidity, nitrogen and carbon dioxide levels all carefully regulated.
In essence it slows the fruit’s respiration, reducing the rate at which they ripen and allowing them to take a long winter ‘nap’ and emerge in near-perfect condition many months later. While refrigeration is good, CA storage is better.
Changes in legislation that have meant the withdrawal of post-harvest anti-fungal products such as DPA, previously applied as a drench before storage, has made it harder to manage conditions that arise during storage and tips the balance firmly towards investing in a modern, CA store that can keep fruit in good condition for up to ten months.
The 2014 report pointed out that only 24% of the stores across England were of the modern, CA variety, while 71% were un-scrubbed (non-CA but capable of reliable cold storage) and the rest were not even refrigerated.
It was the un-scrubbed stores that gave most concern, with the report suggesting that even in 2014, 40% were rapidly heading towards uneconomic use, with the rising price of energy making long-term storage one of the most costly elements of fruit production.
Energy was cheaper back in the day, when many of the companies now looking after the cold store needs of local growers were established.
NV Barden was formed almost 50 years ago when Norman Barden spotted a gap in the market.
In the 1950s, Norman worked for Lightfoot Refrigeration Company, which was supplying compressors to farms and to ships.
He specialised in designing, installing and repairing the compressors on fruit farms, and when Lightfoot dropped its agricultural interests to concentrate on its maritime customers, Norman got the company’s backing to look after the existing customers independently.
In 1968 he set up on his own as NV Barden Refrigeration, and today the Maidstone-based company is run by brothers Kevin –who joined his father straight from school – and Gary, who gained experience with designing and repairing circuit boards before joining the family business.
Today the company still serves fruit growers, although the compressors are top-end models from German manufacturer Bitzer. The personal service remains core to the business, with the brothers’ mobile phone numbers freely available to clients and often used after hours and at weekends.
“The fruit industry is pretty close knit and we have established a good name for ourselves as a specialist refrigeration company,” Gary said. “When we are asked to supply CA systems we use companies such as Ken Hatch at UKCA and WD Hobden for building the CA stores and groundworks.”
In keeping with its history, NV Barden also supplies gas sealing compounds and can even provide grease for older stores.
The alternative to commissioning a cold store from one of the larger ‘one-stop’ providers or a smaller firm that will bring in its own team is to use a project management expert such as Thurlow Nunn Standen’s Specialist Installations Division.
“We can provide a complete turnkey project, bringing in the right experts for the job in hand,” explained director Jeremy Nunn. “From the original concept drawings through the planning process, the building, fitting out and commissioning, we use reliable, selected sub-contractors and take responsibility for the whole scheme.”
Recent projects in this part of the world include a CA store complex and cherry packhouse for AR Neaves at Sittingbourne and the design of a new cold store and fresh leaf salad packhouse for LJ Betts at Offham, as well as a general purpose agricultural building.
“Different projects are best suited to different contractors, although we tend to stick with UKCA for all our controlled atmosphere requirements,” said Jeremy.
Project management is also a major part of what GPL Construction (UK) Ltd provides after expanding its customer base from the frozen food industry to fruit packing and storage.
While the King’s Lynn-based company is known throughout the country for its insulated panels, managing director Peter Clift explained that GPL Construction could take care of everything from project design through complete construction to final handover.
“About 40% of our turnover comes from supplying and installing specialist panel and door systems to main contractors, 30% from carrying out works directly for the end user and the rest is project management,” he commented.
Recent clients in this part of the world include Watts Farms, both at the company’s Farningham base and its food service depot in Dartford, and Berry Gardens at Linton, near Maidstone. The company is another that works closely with Thurlow Nunn Standen’s Specialist Installations Division and with refrigeration experts JD Cooling.
Peter added that for some growers, the availability of grants was a major factor in their decision to upgrade or add to their storage. “Some are clearly keen to go ahead whatever, but for others, financial help is critical.”
With the question of grant funding far from clear as South East Farmer went to press, this clearly is another area where a farsighted central government approach could deliver vital support to an industry that needs to move forward if it is to avoid slipping backwards.
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