Debenham: Dobells at Kenton celebrate bumper apple harvest

Henry Dobell and his partner Katie Griew at Moat Farm orchard in Kenton, Suffolk

Henry Dobell and his partner Katie Griew at Moat Farm orchard in Kenton, Suffolk - Credit: Anglia Picture Agency

An apple grower is celebrating a bumper crop and an early start to the season.

Henry Dobell, who took over 40-year-old orchards at Moat Farm, Kenton, near Debenham, nearly 10 years ago says an early spring with few frosts in February have provided the ideal conditions for his crop.

This year’s warm weather meant some of the early varieties were ready for picking in August, with harvesting beginning in earnest this week.

Henry, who is one of the East of England Co-op’s Sourced Locally suppliers, said with hardly had any frosts in February or March, flowering was three weeks earlier than last year.

“We also had warm weather and with the ground retaining moisture from the exceptionally wet winter growth has been steady and consistent through the growing season. The hot spring and summer weather was supplemented by our under tree irrigation to optimise growth,” he siad.

“I purchased the farm in 2005 after returning to the UK from Tanzania where I had been running plantations growing sisal and coffee for 15 years. Growing fruit for UK supermarkets was a steep and expensive learning curve. Katie and I now only grow for the East of England Co-op and independent greengrocers and farm shops.

“We grow, store, pack and deliver all our fruit ourselves, without relying on anyone else. This has necessitated investment but, supplying East of England Co-op has given us security and confidence to invest in the business making it a viable, sustainable operation.

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“We have replanted nearly half the acreage with high yielding, disease resistant varieties that we know are popular such as Cox’s, Russet, Royal Gala and Early Windsor as well as replanting orchards of heritage varieties including Charles Ross, Blenheim Orange, Lord Lambourne.

“We have refurbished our cold storage equipment to make it more efficient and environmentally friendly, eliminating CFC damaging gases, with plans to increase the total storage capacity as new plantings come to fruition. We concentrate on picking fruit for its optimum flavour rather than extended shelf life and with the varieties we grow we can offer delicious, crisp apples from September to January.”

As part of his investment in plant and equipment, Henry purchased a new sprayer this year, to ensure that chemicals are targeted when they are used.

“We do use chemicals but operate an integrated pest management system to minimalise their use and adhere to the programme for zero residue of any chemicals detectable in the harvested fruit. A new delivery van ensures we can deliver twice weekly to the 28 East of England Coops we supply. For this season we have purchased, at vast expense, new plastic bulk bins for the apple harvest. These are far more hygienic than the traditional wooden bins as well as being more durable. We still use a 70 year old tractor to transport our apples but she has had a refurbishment this winter including a lick of paint and is irreplaceable.

“At the same time, we have been able to improve our farm caravan site with the addition of a shower and WC to benefit from diversification income.

This time of year can be a little manic. Katie concentrates on organising the picking while I have responsibility for packing, marketing and deliveries. We have a great team of pickers - once the harvest is over and the crop sold the farm suddenly seems very quiet, but Katie and I have over 25,000 trees to prune before next spring and 7,000 new trees to plant.

“It’s hard work but we love it and feel very proud when we see our fruit on the shelves. We know how much work, investment and love has gone into getting them there and we hope our customers enjoy the results.”

Although the weather has helped provide earlier, tastier and better looking apples, Henry still tests the starch and sugar levels in all his fruit before picking it.

At the start, Henry used to supply large multiples but opted for a change of direction and now grows, packs, stores and delivers direct to independent green grocers, farmshops and the East of England Co-op’s Sourced Locally range.

Moat Farm began working with the Co-op six years ago after meeting with Locally Sourcing Manager Kevin Warden. In the past two years the farm has seen a 40% growth year-on-year and now sells a range of apples in 28 Co-op stores across Suffolk, representing 25% of its business.

Around 2,300 different varieties of apples have been grown in Britain, with traditional and heritage apples becoming increasingly popular. In total, 16 different varieties of apples are delivered to stores from Moat Farm as and when they are in season. These include Early Windsors, which has a honey flavour, to Spartans, which have a hint of strawberry and melon.

Among the East of England Co-op stores stocking the apples are Framlingham, Darsham Hamper, Mannintree, Hadleigh, Lavenham, Coombs Ford, Eye, Woodbridge, Aldeburgh (High St and Saxmundham Rd), Long Stratton and Debenham.