Farming feature: Innovation lies at heart of farmer Pete's fruit and vegetable growing operation
PUBLISHED: 16:37 02 February 2019
"We take the attitude if you are going to do it, do it properly," says farmer Pete Thompson as he describes how he branched out into apple orchards.
Pete’s is a smallish, highly specialist family farm at Great Oakley near Harwich, which benefits from its own special sea-warmed micro-climate and high light levels. It’s just 450 acres, of which 300 acres is family owned, with parcels dotted around the village.
But Pete, who is a highly entrepreneurial third generation farmer – grandfather George started it, and father Michael picked up where he left off – is never short on big ideas. As well as Brook Farm being a market leader and sole producer of Thompson’s Leaf, a key ingredient in Chinese restaurants also known as ‘crispy seaweed’, and jumbo salad onions selected and grown for the Chinese sector, he also trials a number of crops, such as citrus fruits, sometimes on behalf of other clients, and collaborates with other businesses.
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Before embarking on his orchard venture - he grows Braeburn, Opal and Topaz and Evelina apples and Conference pears – he headed to Holland and Kent to check out what growers were doing there and mug up on the latest growing techniques to get the best fruit and yields.
Cotchel fruit juices launch
He started the orchards in 2010/11 and launched his own juice products, under his own brand, ‘Cotchel’, about four years ago. These have gained some industry plaudits: in 2018, Cotchel Topaz and Evelina Apple Juice scooped a coveted three stars at the Great Taste Awards.
His fruit and some of the botanicals he grows are also going into a new London Dry Gin, Reliquum, one of his newest ventures. “That has been very well received and we are very proud of it,” he said.
He has just completed a melon project which has proved a great success, with two varieties of melon and watermelon moving on to a commercial trial stage this year.
Innovation is at the heart of the business, and he now has planning permission for a Fresh Produce Innovation Centre, and expects to break ground on the project soon.
At the same time, biodiversity and conservation are very important to him, so he incorporates that ethos into the business, with wildlife corridors and features to encourage pollinating insects. The farm, home to owls, heron, cormorants, little grebes and kingfishers, is also a corporate member of Essex Wildlife Trust. “It’s something I feel strongly about – it’s good for the business as well,” he says.
“We are not organic, but we are pinching some organic ideas - it’s hard enough to become an apple and pear grower from scratch without doing it organically from scratch.”
The fruit growing business in the UK reaped what it sowed a few decades ago when it fell by the wayside as continental growers stormed ahead, he believes, as the sector hadn’t invested in research and innovation, which he thinks are key to success. “I think UK farmers have a history perhaps of being slightly complacent,” he says.
Brexit has been a headache, he admits, with wage pressures and commercial uncertainty. He has up to around 50 workers, with about 25 to 30 through the winter, working on the farm.
“Until we know the reality of labour availability and labour costs we can’t plant any orchards so it’s frozen the business,” he says.
“I voted to stay in, not because I don’t think it needs fixing. A big percentage of our staff are European Union (EU) staff and all our inputs come out of the EU. The exchange rate is really pushing prices up and it’s getting worse.” It might also be encouraging suppliers to build in some padding above and beyond the exchange rate, he suspects.
Last year’s heatwave justified a decision to invest in a fifth reservoir five years ago, as freak weather patterns continue to throw up challenges for farmers.
“It’s clear to us we are getting about the same rainfall in the course of the year but we are getting it but we are getting it in much fewer and more violent episodes,” he says. “That gentle summer rain seems to have disappeared. Now you get torrential storms for an hour, it runs straight off and causes soil erosion.
The Thompson family has been farming fruit and vegetables since 1948 and has adapted to survive. That has remained Pete’s strategy, with crops constantly changing to suit demand.
“You keep pushing until you find one that flies. We used to grow five different types of lettuce on the farm, and there isn’t a lettuce on the farm now – it was loss-making for a whole number of reasons.”