Mists and mellow fruitfulness

PUBLISHED: 05:08 15 December 2014 | UPDATED: 15:08 16 December 2014

Ed Wharton, who grows blackcurrants at his family-run business in Filby

Ed Wharton, who grows blackcurrants at his family-run business in Filby

Archant

Two fruit farmers and members of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association explain why the county is the perfect year-round home for fruit crops.

Tim Place, managing director of Place UKTim Place, managing director of Place UK

Wharton Farms located in and around Filby, near Great Yarmouth, is a fourth generation family-run business headed up by Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA) member Edward Wharton. The farm supplies about 400 tonnes of blackcurrants each year for the drinks brand, Ribena.

“Autumn is a busy time for us as we start to prune our 200 acres of bushes,” says Edward. “This is done mechanically as hand-pruning is now too labour intensive and not cost effective. We also start to replant between 15 and 20 acres with new blackcurrant cuttings to replace the older plantations. It takes three years for new bushes to produce a crop. Depending on the health of the bushes, plantations on average have a life of roughly 12 years although some fields have been known to be productive for a lot longer.

“We grow seven different varieties of blackcurrant which helps spread out the harvest picking window, which is normally between mid-July and the second week of August. Innovations in the blackcurrant breeding programme mean we strive to get the balance right in terms of taste, colour and high natural sugar content required by Ribena, but also the yield, disease and frost resistance for each variety, which is important for me as a farmer. Blackcurrants require cold winters to be productive and the breeders are developing varieties that are less affected by the climate change that we are arguably experiencing.”

The farm also has strong environmental credentials and as part of its Ribena contract it provides one bird or bat box per hectare of blackcurrants and now has 80 boxes in place.

“The song thrush is our target species as part of our wildlife conservation plan. We have created wood piles in each plantation to encourage larvae and insect life for the thrush. We also leave the field headlands and the alleyways in between the blackcurrant rows untouched to create a habitat which encourages both predators for blackcurrant pests and beneficial insects to aid pollination. This reduces our use and reliance on pesticides. Looking after the environment, coupled with innovations in science, has made our blackcurrant growing a sustainable enterprise which will hopefully be a large part of our farming business for years to come.”

Diamond anniversary

RNAA member, Tim Place, is the managing director and third generation family member to run Place UK, which farms 900 acres of soft fruit crops including strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, cherry and rhubarb.

“We are celebrating Place UK’s 60th anniversary this year and during this time we are proud to have established a business which supplies fresh and frozen fruit to the UK’s leading supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Marks and Spencer through the marketing cooperative, Berry Gardens,” explains Tim.

Place UK produces around 3 million punnets of fresh strawberries and 2.5m punnets of raspberries per year for consumers across the UK – from its base at Church Farm, Tunstead, close to the Norfolk Broads.

“As well as the fresh offering we also grow specific varieties of soft fruit for freezing and puree such as rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries which are frozen on site. So fruit farming and processing really is a year-round job for our team.

“People are just as important as produce and are the heart of our business, we employ 63 full-time local staff and up to 450 seasonal staff, so the impact of fruit farming on Norfolk’s rural economy is significant. This year we are adding two new crops to our produce range; forced rhubarb for the fresh markets and we have also planted large areas of intensive covered dwarf cherry. Sixty years on and we are still trying new produce which makes fruit farming an exciting enterprise and one my family remain proud to be involved in”.

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