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British apples really are best – but we need to save them now

Though our apples are now available all year, autumn is when the most interesting and diverse varieties come to the fore.

’Tis the season to… eat apples. The British apple season officially kicked off at the end of last month, a week earlier than expected after our record-breaking hot summer. While modern storage methods and varieties mean British apples are now available all year, autumn is when the most interesting and diverse varieties are within reach.

British apples are the best in the world, in part because our temperate maritime climate means they ripen more slowly than in hotter countries. The heat this summer might not sound like good news then, but the chair of growers’ association British Apples & Pears, Ali Capper, who farms on the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border, insists that the stress the trees have been under has made for a particularly fine crop.

Nonetheless, it’s been a challenging season for apple growers, with a triple whammy of drought, rising fuel costs and labour worries. ‘I think most growers were looking at their trees in early July, thinking they had a beautiful crop. Everything was set nicely,’ says Capper. Then came the heatwave, and with it apple damage as some fruit developed ‘sun scorch’.

‘A big nasty brown patch on the face of the apple isn’t nice to look at, but also, if it’s very severe, the skin is effectively damaged, so the apple underneath will start to deteriorate,’ she explains. Between 10 and 20 per cent of Bramleys, particularly susceptible to sun scorch, have been affected.

Another issue has been the lack of rain. A high proportion of the crop is watered, but where there is no irrigation, ‘those growers have struggled’, says Capper. ‘Even with irrigation, it is just not as good as natural rainfall, so then you tend to get a slightly smaller size of apple.’

This has occurred across Europe, along with the problem of all apples arriving at once. Farms have struggled to pick on time, with the result that the harvest is forecast to be down by up to a quarter.

A shortage of pickers is a major issue. British farms have been paying more for pickers this year, and while Capper believes that currently there are enough people for farms to manage, there are concerns about the rest of the harvest. With an increase in overtime earlier in the season, when the farm worker shortage was particularly acute, workers may have earned enough to go home early, meaning farmers may struggle to find pickers for the later-ripening fruit.

Fuel costs are hitting growers too. Apples are stored throughout the year in chilled systems, with oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen levels carefully managed, all of which involves energy.

‘More than half of growers have significantly invested in solar and other renewables,’ says Capper. ‘But we are beholden to the market for electricity for a proportion of the storage cost.’ Some farmers, she says, could soon be paying several times more than last year, which could make businesses unviable.

We need to support apple growers. From the late 1970s, orchards around the country were grubbed up, as the sweet, bland imported French Golden Delicious became a bestseller. Traditional British varieties struggled. Thankfully, by the 1990s growers had fought back, with new ‘clean’ red-skinned varieties like Gala and Jazz. Innovation, says Capper, is the key to keeping buyers happy. So fill your bowl: old or new, British really is best.


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