Published: 09:11, 16 August 2019
| Updated: 12:02, 21 August 2019
The 2019 Kent apple harvest has got underway with old favourites like Discovery making a welcome appearance on supermarket shelves across the country.
Fruit farming on the scale needed to feed the UK’s growing population continues to be big business in Kent.
So what’s the story behind the country’s largest apple and pear grower AC Goatham & Son?
Based in Hoo with 25 farms across the county, this family business had humble beginnings.
Started in 1947 by Arthur and Phyllis Goatham, agricultural contractors from Bearsted - they bought fruit crops from local farms, harvested, packed and sent it to wholesale markets.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s when the ‘son’ in the business - Clive Goatham - took day-to-day control and the business which exists today began to take shape.
In 1980, many apple crops around Maidstone were damaged by a devastating hailstorm.
The Goatham’s went to Medway to buy fruit and with it came the opportunity for Clive to buy their first farm in Hoo and to grow their own fruit for the first time.
From 1990, a decade of decline began for the British apple and pear industry and started with 1,400 growers and ended with 500.
Despite tough times, Clive’s vision has always been clear: ‘We believe in doing things differently to all that has gone before’.
This vision has created an industry leading farming business supplying top quality apples and pears directly to UK supermarkets.
In 2007, the sale of farmland for much needed local housing in Medway provided the funding to invest back into the business - taking it from farming 125 acres to 2,830 acres.
This enabled the planting of over two million new fruit trees, the restoration of over 100 miles of native hedging and funded the business infrastructure to support it.
The investment enables the business to compete with much larger overseas growers and more importantly for the UK to be more self-sufficient in producing its own fruit, putting British apples and pears back into the baskets of UK shoppers.
The Goatham’s could have quite easily sold up and retired after their early business success however Clive’s vision along with the third generation of Goatham and their award-winning senior management team means there is more to come.
All profits continue to be invested back into the business for the future.
By using the most modern orchard planting and growing techniques, investment in new and favourite fruit varieties, cold storage, packing and distribution facilities, this farm business is also growing new jobs in Medway.
It has grown from employing 30 people in 2007 to now employing 250 full time and 700 seasonal workers and contributes an estimated £13 million back into the local economy each year.
The business has also undertaken the largest new planting of conference pear orchards in the UK in the last 40 years, increasing the market share for British grown pears to 8%.
Clearly still plenty of room to grow this market share further.
And combined with innovations such as selling Ripe and Ready to eat pears, it is introducing them to a new, younger audience, helping steer them away from junk food.
This year there will also be a new variety of Pink skinned apple for sale – a first for British growers as similar pink apples are all grown overseas.
The nation’s favourite apple variety Royal Gala continues to be grown by Goatham’s as well as many others, ensuring British shoppers can buy British apples for nearly 12 months of the year, tasting as fresh as the day they were picked.
Goatham’s grows one in four of British apples and one in three of the British Conference pears sold in the UK each year.
And at a time when landowners are under pressure in Kent and Medway to make land available for housing and major infrastructure projects, the Goatham’s way of growing fruit makes the best use of the land available here in the South East, growing more fruit per acre than older, less efficient styles of orchards.
The British fruit industry has seen huge changes over the last 30 years to make it more competitive, but it continues to face stiff competition from overseas growers.
As well as issues like the rising cost and supply of seasonal labour and the challenges and costs of investing in and developing new technologies there is also the time it takes to see a return on investment, especially in producing new varieties and using modern growing methods.
Growers rely on the continued support of British shoppers who by choosing British apples and pears can be sure they are getting a quality tasting, sustainable and healthy snack to enjoy throughout the year.
More by this authorKentOnline reporter