What next for Somerset’s apple growers?

Share this article

Cornwall is renowned for the mighty Cornish pasty (awarded protected geographical indication status (PGI) in 2011). Devon is known, internationally, for cream tea. Dorset is famous for Blue Vinney cheese (awarded PGI status in 1998), whilst Somerset is probably best known for its apples and award-winning ciders. However, Somerset’s apple orchards face a bleak future: 50 per cent have disappeared over the last 50 years. I spoke with one of Somerset’s first commercial fruit growers for his take on what the future holds.

Peter (not his real name) is, among other things, a fruit farmer in Somerset. His family has owned, tenanted and (latterly) worked the land around their modern farm since the late 18th century. In its heyday the landholding was 1,600 acres. Today the farm is approximately 160 acres. One third of the land is currently dedicated to growing fruit (mostly apples, but also pears). Peter’s commercial fruit farm was one of the first in Somerset, beginning life in the late 1920s when his grandfather started planting the orchards. Up until this point, Somerset’s orchards were small-scale operations geared towards satisfying local demand. The move to commercial fruit growing for the UK market was necessitated by the great agricultural recession that followed WWI. Agricultural workers were fleeing the countryside for a better life in the towns and cities, and Peter’s grandfather had to diversify to ensure the farm remained sustainable. Fortunately, his grandfather’s gamble paid off and, 90 years on, the fruit farm and farm shop are not just thriving but are well-known and well-loved for miles around.

Peter says that his fruit business is doing well, but there is an ever-increasing need to diversify his offering. Having all your eggs in one basket is a very dangerous way to operate a farm, so the 105 acres that are not used to grow fruit are put to work in different ways. The farm is home to a sizable solar park; a considerable acreage is dedicated to growing fodder crops for a nearby dairy farm; and a lot of investment has gone towards expanding the farm shop.

“Growing, processing and selling our own fruit in the shop has been crucial to our survival“, says Peter. However, the future for fruit growing looks bleak. Peter’s primary market is supermarket sales, but strict shape and size criteria, an oversupply of apples, and changing consumer habits all exert downward pressure on prices. His farm produces around 400 tonnes of fruit per year, but the harvest fluctuates year on year (sometimes by as much as 50 per cent). It’s Peter’s view that 400 tonnes of fruit is about the limit of sustainability for an independent, family-run fruit farm. Anything less than 400 tonnes and you’re in trouble; hence the continual need for Somerset’s fruit farmers to diversify.

The conversation turns, inevitably, to Brexit. In Peter’s view, the biggest threat posed by Brexit is that it might deny him ready access to seasonal labour. The labour shortages his grandfather saw in the 1920s are, for different reasons, becoming a concern once again. Tending orchards is irregular, hard, manual labour. It simply isn’t possible to support a family or buy a house on seasonal work like this, so Britons don’t want to do it. The free movement of experienced, seasonal agricultural workers is crucial to Peter’s business model.

Does the prospect of tariffs on international trade worry Peter? He feels that, actually, tariffs on imported fruit could make his produce more competitive in the domestic market. After all, apples and pears imported from the southern hemisphere have always faced higher import tariffs during European harvest time (August–December). However, if a UK-EU trade deal cannot be agreed in time for 1 January 2021, then the UK Global Tariff scheme will kick in and see high seasonal tariffs applied to EU member states too. This means that apples imported to the UK from EU member states will be subject to an eight per cent tariff between August and December. In addition, imported cider apples will be subject to a year-round import tariff of six per cent.

These tariffs will certainly make our freshly picked apples and pears more competitive within the UK market and, on the face of it, this is a good thing for Somerset’s apple growers. On the other hand, if the domestic apple harvest has a bad year then the cost of importing apples could be very damaging to the companies that process apples and are reliant on a steady supply.

One such company is C&C, a global drinks manufacturer with its headquarters in Dublin. All of Peter’s cider apples are grown under contract with C&C, which owns the Bulmers and Magners cider brands. Peter’s cider apples get pressed at the Showerings Cider Mill in Shepton Mallet, where the juice is then evaporated and traded as apple juice concentrate. From this point, however, he loses track of his apple juice and he doesn’t know for sure where it ends up. Not unreasonably, however, he assumes that it ends up in the Republic of Ireland and gets turned into cider there. It is unclear what sort of tariffs the EU plans to impose on apples or apple juice of UK origin. However, if the UK-EU cannot agree a trade deal in time for 1 January 2021 then the UK becomes a ‘third country’ (just as the USA or China is). Were this to happen, then the EU’s Common External Tariff (CET) on apple juice concentrate from the UK could be as high as 18 per cent. This will no doubt impact how C&C operates, and could have a devastating impact upon Somerset’s (and the UK’s) apple growers as companies look to avoid the hassle of trading in British fruit.

Peter then gives an example of the kind of thing that happens when supply and demand is disrupted. As many of us know, coronavirus restrictions have meant that, sadly, we have seen pubs and restaurants closed for months on end. The result? Demand for cider apples has been non-existent. ‘So what will happen to your cider crop this year?’ I ask. Apparently, C&C has a stockpile of cider apple concentrate and doesn’t need any more. ‘Strange times indeed’, says Peter.

Maybe it’s because it’s nearly time to begin the apple harvest that the conversation turns again to the need for continued access to seasonal workers. Peter is keen to stress how damaging the threats of restrictions are for his industry, and believes the issue is something that the government needs to address very quickly. Robotic fruit pickers are a possible solution to this problem, but Peter tells me they have been 10 years away for about 30 years now.

Talking with Peter has been a sobering experience. Right now, his diversified business model means he is thriving. Indeed, the farm business has fared well during the coronavirus pandemic as consumers have rediscovered shopping locally. In addition, lockdown has generated the need for a home delivery service and Peter was able to answer the call because of the farm shop (and a team of community volunteers). However, his main business is still fruit growing and the long-term profitability of this is increasingly precarious.

Peter doesn’t mince his words: “it’s difficult to see commercial fruit growing lasting another generation.”

Peter expresses frustration at the missed opportunity to protect farmers like him by adding clauses to the Agriculture Bill earlier this year. The UK Global Tariff régime looks set to have import tariffs for apples, but Peter says he is filled with dread at the thought of the government setting zero per cent tariffs for other agricultural imports. Peter is right to be concerned for his fellow farmers, but there is also a concern that the US and China, apple-producing giants, could outcompete British fruit growers on price, even if our government imposes high seasonal import tariffs.

Peter then brings up two words that we’ve been hearing a lot more recently: ’food security’. Indeed, if our government fails to protect British food producers from being undercut by enormous volumes of cheap imports, then this could compromise our food security. What’s more, it’ll be a race to the bottom if British producers try to compete with cheaper imports.

“Food production will be driven into factories”, he says, “and this is not something I want to see”.

That said, Peter is quick to add that “farmers like to moan!” He is hopeful that a UK-EU trade deal can be reached in time and that these fears will never be realised.

”In the end”, he says, “nothing stands still in agriculture. When one door closes, another one opens.”

In any case, this farmer’s pragmatism and entrepreneurial spirit should give us some hope that apples and Somerset will remain intertwined far, far longer than just one last generation.