The apple trail through Kent, the Garden of England, was perhaps the most famous of the old guided orchard tours, and Nick Swatland’s apple farm near Sittingbourne in the north of the county used to be as fine a sight as any. But no more. A couple of years ago the Kent Tourist Board said the blossom trail would not run again, since so many of the orchards had been grubbed up. And in 2002 Swatland too packed up his apple business. His last year, 2001, was ironically one of the best ever, with a huge and good-quality crop, but he saw little from it. He was supplying the supermarkets through a marketing organisation, but the prices just kept getting lower and lower. ‘We were being given 20 to 21 pence a kilo, they were selling them in the stores at twice that, and we needed 32 pence to break even. The prices would change by the day, and then they’d take 60 to 90 days to pay you, when you’d already paid your labour.
If you were a very good boy you’d get some money eventually. It was not good for the heart. It was a combination of things, I suppose, that finished us: the global economy, dominant supermarkets and the strength of the pound.’ John Dickson is a 56-year-old farmer in Cambridgeshire. He is hanging on with his apples, pears and plums, but only just.
He averages a 70-hour week for an income of about £18,000. His farm now has orchards with 10,000 trees, which are home to owls, hawks and much other wildlife, but he hasn’t earned enough to pay income tax in three of the last five years. He used to supply the big supermarkets direct but got de-listed, for complaining, he says. Most people are too afraid to speak out.
He now supplies smaller supermarkets through a pack-house. Dickson says: ‘You’d agree a price at the beginning of the season, then the week after it would be cut, then it would be cut again, till you say, "very sorry, but I can’t take that kind of money", and you get dropped. Most of the time you feel you have no choice about going along with them, because once you’ve been dropped you can’t get back in at a decent price. And you’ve got all their bloody packaging and have had to pay for it. ‘Last year, I had to do a ‘‘promotion’ on apples – three pounds for the price of two pounds, and I had to take the loss. I also had to pay two and a half pence extra for each sticker that went on the pack boasting about the offer. The supermarket said they knew I was making a loss on the apples but no one would pay more and they could always get them somewhere else abroad if I didn’t want to do it.’ But perhaps the most maddening thing was the beauty parade.
A supermarket apple must look good in front of the camera or risk rejection. The ‘Greefa Intelligent Quality Sorter’ has cameras that take up to 70 colour pictures of every apple as it passes along a conveyor belt to determine the ‘blush of non-equally-coloured fruit’, and to grade it by size. It can detect deviations of as little as one square millimetre. So if the supermarket specification says that an apple of a particular variety must be 15–17 per cent blush red on green, for instance, it can ‘grade out’ or reject any apples that are 18 per cent red on green or a miserable 14 per cent red on green. The sorter’s promotional literature cheerfully explains the reason for the beauty parade: ‘Nature has many surprises... Buyers, however, require uniform fruit and vegetables of standard size.’ The beauty parade often means the difference between profit and loss for the farmer. Anything ‘graded out’ for failing the test ends up, if the farmer is lucky, as fruit for juice at give-away prices of three to five pence a pound, but as often as not it will just go to waste. Then there’s the penetrometer. It’s a spring-loaded little tool that measures the resistance of fruit.
Dickson is eloquent on the subject of the penetrometer. ‘I had the buyer round and he said my pressures were out. He admitted my coxes were the best he’d tasted, but they weren’t hard enough for his shelf life, and he told me I’d have to pick the fruit earlier. All the ripe ones have to come off when we go through the grader. No wonder people complain fruit doesn’t taste of anything. They also get tested for starch and sugars and all that. I test mine the traditional way, with my front teeth. I can’t get very excited about all this.’ The triumph of appearance over flavour has gone so far that the World Apple and Pear Association recently announced that it was considering drawing up ‘an international organoleptic standards’ label. Fruit that tasted of something would qualify for the new logo. Size matters, too. Assuming the fruit can survive the penetrometer, it must conform to the supermarkets’ vital statistics. For Dickson this presents its own problems. ‘When I was a boy, 60 millimetres was considered the ideal size for an apple. That would be five or six apples to a pound; you’d sell larger 65-millimetre ones for a premium. But 65 millimetres gave you four apples to a pound. Now the supermarkets want a minimum of 70-millimetre apples from me, so you only get three to a pound. Which, of course, means most customers end up buying more: to get four apples now you need to buy one and a quarter pounds rather than the traditional pound. ‘But to achieve those bigger apples I have to prune my trees much harder, and overfeed them. The apple is less well balanced because of the excess fertiliser; it loses its flavour. Then you get bitter pit – that’s brown spots, and I have to spray all the time with calcium to prevent the markings.’ A cox may have been sprayed up to 16 times by the time it reaches the shops. Extracted from Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence published by Penguin.
Copyright © Felicity Lawrence 2004. www.penguin.co.uk
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004