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New Orchard On The Hadlow Estate Farm

Hadlow Estate’s long term investment in fruit growing as orchard replanting programme reaches completion

Kent is renowned for its plentiful supply of premium quality fruit and the Hadlow Estate is proud to be a part of this heritage.

Despite the major changes British farming is undergoing at the moment, the Estate is committed to its fruit growing business and is making a long term investment in its future.

Located between Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, the Estate’s 200-acre apple and pear orchards currently produce up to 25 million pieces of high-quality fruit each year. It’s not an endless cycle though, as fruit trees have a commercial life span. Over time the yield and quality of the fruit decreases and effectively, the orchards reach their ‘use by’ date.

Fruit orchards have been planted at Hadlow for many decades and they are replanted in different rotations, depending on the fruit variety, at various locations around the farm. Gala orchards typically have a lifespan of about 15 years whilst Bramleys last an average of 25 years and pears up to 30 years.

Careful, ongoing planning is required to ensure the Estate is getting the very best from its orchards.  Our most recent replanting operation has seen more than 13,000 new trees being planted across 7 hectares.

Stakes laid out in new orchard field
Stakes are laid out in the new orchard field

This rolling programme of removing ageing trees and planting new ones in their place is essential and forms an important part of Hadlow’s ongoing farming strategy.

This recent two year replanting project will see the orchards deliver an annual target of 1,225 tonnes of Gala apples, 290 tonnes of Conference pears and 925 tonnes of Bramley apples, all supplied to a range of leading supermarkets, juice manufacturers and English apple cider makers.

Contractors marking and staking new orchard
Contractors Agrovest Ltd marking and staking the new orchard

It’s required meticulous management and has been led by Farm Manager Nigel Gibb, who is well versed in the challenges it presents as he was at Hadlow in 2000 to oversee the first replanting scheme in this very same area.

Nigel explains: “Once you get to that 15-year point, the orchard is really at the end of its commercial life. The fruit begins to lose colour and crunch. In life, the ageing process means deterioration and apple and pear tree orchards are no different in that respect.

Farm manager Nigel Gibb
Farm Manager Nigel Gibb

This time around, work began in November 2019 with the site being sensitively cleared with a focus on regeneration and renewal of the land.  Before replanting got underway, Nigel and his team made use of ‘cover crops’ to prepare the ground for the orchard to come.

English Giant Mustard was planted as a cover crop, which was cut as soon as it flowered and before it set seed. As the Mustard cuttings break down they release Euric Acid into the soil – acting as a natural sterilant in the ground to prevent a soil borne disease called Phytophthora, which can stunt new apple trees and reduce their fruit bearing potential. This regenerative approach – of using the natural properties of specific crops rather than relying solely on pesticides or fungicides – is an example of how the farm’s methods are constantly adapting.

Farm team member working in orchard
Farm team member Dmitrii Troitskii at work in the new orchard

In year two, winter wheat was planted, which had the dual effect of helping condition the soil and controlling weeds.  The stubble was left over the winter to lock in organic matter and improve the soil structure and after the wheat was harvested, straw bales were retained to be used as a mulch to lock in moisture under young fruit trees, when the irrigation system is put in.

The trees were sourced from the Estate’s regular supplier in Holland and arrived at the Estate in January. They were put into ‘hibernation’ in the farm’s cold store before the planting operation got underway in April, taking around three to four weeks to complete.

Farm team members at work in orchard
Farm team members Marius Neatmu, Laura Manta and Gheorghe Balan at work in the new orchard

Currently, Hadlow’s main commercial crops consist of Gala and Bramley apples and Conference pears. However, its orchards also feature other varieties such as Russet and Golden Delicious apples as pollinator trees in the Bramley orchards and Comice in the pear orchards.

In response to demand, one significant difference in the future will be the type of Gala apple grown. Hadlow has opted for a clone called Jugala, which is a more complete red colour, as opposed to the previous type grown, Mondial, which is a combination of red and green.

Nigel says: “There was a time when the supermarkets didn’t want an apple that was more than 60 percent red but now it’s the other way round. We have to follow these trends as there is no point in us growing something the majority of people aren’t going to buy.

Another major difference is that the new orchard is laid out in single, not double rows, so mechanical picking technology that may be utilised in the future, can reach both sides of the tree. This also means picking can continue to be done from ground level, rather than using high wire systems or ladders. The orchards are carefully managed to ensure the trees remain at a height that ensures all fruit can be reached by pickers on foot. As well as being more cost-effective, this method is much safer for staff too.

New orchard takes shape
The new orchard takes shape

Overseeing consecutive orchard replanting operations over many years has helped Nigel learn a great deal about the best way to space trees – and his knowledge and expertise continues to be invaluable.

He explains: “Historically the two-row bed system has worked very well for us, but with the demise of quite a few chemicals, weed control between the trees is challenging. This is another reason why we have opted for a single row system this time.

We have very strong brick earth soils at Hadlow, which are ideal for growing trees, but equally, we have to be mindful of this when planting. If spaces between trees are too tight, then once they mature it is difficult to carry out pruning without cutting a lot of the potential fruit off.”

Within the rolling 15-year rolling programme, the overall area for planting and the likely tonnage of fruit it will yield has to be carefully considered and maintained.

It is vital to ensure that there is an overlap between the old and the new as no fruit is produced at all in year one. It will take five years before the new orchard hits its maximum annual yield of more than 50 tonnes of fruit per hectare.

Man picking apple from tree
The Estate’s orchards currently produce up to 25 million pieces of high-quality fruit each year

Fruit growing in Kent stretches back for generations and it’s a tradition which owners Kate and Harry Teacher, and everyone connected with the Estate, are rightly proud.

Kate is full of praise for the staff who have undertaken the operation. She says: “I think what has amazed me is the sheer transformation of that part of the Estate, the whole process of regeneration and renewal, and particularly the care that goes into a project like this.

At every stage of the process there has been a meticulous attention to detail and the effort that all the team has put into this is just amazing. We are hugely appreciative of all their hard work.”

Nigel says the replanting programme has not been without its challenges, but some were beyond the team’s control. He says: “A lot has changed since we replanted 20 years ago, particularly around supply of materials. We were up against the clock at times, but we got there in the end.

It’s always an exciting challenge to get a new orchard up and running, but it was all worthwhile when I watched the final tree going into the ground. That was a very satisfying moment indeed.

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