Adam Henson’s farm talk – Where our food comes from part two: apples

Countryfile's very own farmer looks at why we import so much 'native' fruit.

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Norfolk Rattlebox, Taynton Codlin and Ashmead’s Kernel; strange, evocative names that belong to three traditional English apple varieties. But despite their charm and heritage, you’re unlikely to see them on sale in your local supermarket, at least for the time being.

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For centuries, the autumn apple and pear harvest was a busy time in orchard counties such as Kent, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Somerset. Individual villages and hamlets could often boast their own locally distinctive fruit, and even today it’s thought there are something like 2,300 varieties of English apple alone.

Grubbing up orchards

But in the post war years, our homegrown apples went out of favour and in the 1980s, growers were grubbing up orchards all over the country to make way for things such as housing and more profitable crops. Some estimate that we’ve lost half our orchards in the past 25 years or so.

Grubbing up coincided with the influx of cheap foreign fruit, especially from New Zealand and France. At one time there was a war against French apples, with highly publicised campaigns and pickets.

Of course, these days we’d be outraged if we couldn’t buy sweet, juicy, crunchy apples all year round and for that we rely on foreign imports. English orchards alone couldn’t satisfy demand and native apples are only harvested in the autumn anyway, so we shouldn’t be too hard on French and New Zealand fruit or deny how good they are. It might surprise the cynics and the tabloid press to discover that a third of all the eating apples we buy, and almost one in five pears in the shops, are grown in the UK.

English Gala, Cox and Braeburn top the native apple list, while the vast majority of pears we buy are Conference. In fact, across the board, things are looking rosy in the orchards of England. In the last five or six years there’s been a huge resurgence in cider and perry drinking, thanks to the big drinks producers and amazing advertising campaigns. That’s coincided with widespread interest in localness, traceability and the farmers’ market movement, which has inspired enterprising souls to replant traditional orchards.

So you can only imagine the disappointment there’s been in areas such as the West Midlands, where the harvest has been bad this year. Trees have been battered by rain, hail and even frost, while in some places the pollination process barely happened at all. As every school child knows, you need bees to pollinate the blossom and many honey producers take hives around to the apple orchards to give the growers a helping hand. But when the rain seems relentless, bees don’t fly and instead hunker down in their hives to live off their reserves of honey. I’ve heard of one Midlands orchard that forecast a turnover this year of £1.6m but is now looking at making just £160,000.

Scarcity of apples

Not all growers have been affected by the weather but it looks as if the English apple crop will be down by around 17 percent this year. Adrian Barlow, from the trade organisation English Apples and Pears, says: “Due to similar problems in Europe, apples are going to be scarce. It’s a tragedy that we’re not going to see the industry as a whole increase production as it has in recent years.”

We’ll have to wait to find out how much English fruit appears in the supermarkets, and at what price, but its hi-tech journey to the shelves will be unaffected. Today, apples are mostly harvested, shaken and sorted automatically, without being touched by hand. They then go into computer controlled cold storage at 1°C (34°F) and the atmosphere is infused with a harmless treatment that narrows the pores in the skin to effectively put the apples to ‘sleep’ for up to six months.

We’re used to the big six supermarkets displaying shiny, unblemished, perfect-looking fruit, but I’d like to think that the weather woes of the English growers might prick the collective conscience of
the multinationals.

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Wouldn’t it be great if it prompted stores to sell not just Gala and Cox, but the Taynton Codlin as well?