Farming feature: David’s desire for an ‘average’ apple harvest

Discovery apple harvest at Stoke Farm.
Farm owner, David Upson.

Discovery apple harvest at Stoke Farm. Farm owner, David Upson. - Credit: Archant

Apple grower David Upson has been looking at his crop with a critical eye this week as he begins harvesting his first ripe fruit.

Discovery apple harvest at Stoke Farm.
L-R Rebecca Upson, Doreen Knock, David Upson.

Discovery apple harvest at Stoke Farm. L-R Rebecca Upson, Doreen Knock, David Upson. - Credit: Archant

But other than suggesting it may be an “average” year for him, David will not be drawn too much on yields and quality. There are some weeks to go on some of the crops, and anything can happen.

“You never say anything until it’s all tucked up in the cold store,” he explains.

He grows apples - and some pears and newly-planted apricots - in his orchards of just under 30 acres. An army of willing pickers from the village at Battisford, near Stowmarket, help out with the harvest every year and arrived on Monday.

“They are all locals which is unusual for a fruit farm today, because most farms use foreign labour,” he says. “We are unusual. We grow it and press it - we are about to start the press this week.”

Discovery apple harvest at Stoke Farm.
Doreen Knock helping with the harvest.

Discovery apple harvest at Stoke Farm. Doreen Knock helping with the harvest. - Credit: Archant

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The fruit farm was planted in 1957 by an ex-army major, and David purchased it at the end of 1988.

After graduating from Writtle College at Chelmsford, he started out with a pig-rearing business, renting pig buildings and farming as a partnership for about four years until he had put enough money together to buy a place of his own. Then Stoke Farm at Battisford, near Stowmarket, came on the market and he snapped it up.

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“It was to run our pigs under the trees. They went a long time ago - it happened on a small scale but we gave up,” he explains. “It was the pigs that gave us the capital to buy the fruit farm.”

They plumped for fruit over pigs, but while pig production is a challenging job, fruit farming is highly risky, he explains.

“We were going to run it as an outdoor pic unit with the pigs under the trees but we thought fruit farming was going to be a lot easier than pigs.”

However, as he soon discovered, things are never that simple.

“You can control virtually everything with pigs. The one thing you don’t have control over with fruit farming is the weather. You can lose the entire crop when you come to pick,” he says.

“I’ve learnt now when you get a bumper crop, you end up with problems because it affects the next year. You just want an average crop so it doesn’t affect the trees and the following year.”

This year, he has had a bumper apricot crop, but the trees, at three or four years old, are very young.

The pears are looking “interesting”, but it will be three or four weeks before he starts harvesting them.

“It’s suddenly turned warm. With all the moisture we’ve had recently that could swell the fruit up to a very nice size,” he says. There are three weeks to go on the Coxes.

“The Discovery apples are very nice,” he says. “We could put another 12-15mm on each apple and we could have a very nice crop. We now need some warm days and warm nights.”

David grows about 20 varieties of apple, including five types of Russet. It’s unusual on a modern fruit farm, but as he processes all his crops himself to make fruit juices, it’s flavour he’s after.

“The soil that we are on and the height where we are - we are 85m above sea level - means we have a tendency to grow smaller apples rather than larger ones.

However, because everything grows a lot more slowly we tend to have a lot more flavour, but everyone’s after size rather what it tastes like,” he says.

“We don’t spray insecticides on the fruit - we don’t want any residues in the juice. We are after taste and flavour. We are not after aesthetics.”

The juices are sold under the Appletree Hill and East of England Co-op’s Sourced Locally brand as Stoke Farm Orchards, and David will probably be harvesting the fruit for them until the end of October.

Some apple crops this year have been “all over the place” in terms of size - and all because of the weather, he says.

“We have got plenty of apples but size-wise they are all over the place because we had a very, very extended blossom period. It was cold and wet and overcast.

Those that flowered early had better temperatures and better lgiht than those that flowered later that had cold temperatures and poorer light.”

Weather conditions affect cell generation and this will have a knock-on effect on fruit size.

Pigs were far easier in many ways, and he had less budgetary headaches. With huge variations each year in crop yields, you can be “massively far out” on your budget with fruit farming, he says.

“The one thing with fruit growing rather than pigs is we can close the gates at the end of the night,” he says. “With pigs, you can’t.”

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