grower profile: paul and sara ward

Paul and Sara Ward will be supplying us with their in-conversion apples from their farm in Kent. We asked Paul to give us some background information:

We embarked upon the commercial growing of Organic fruit some 10 years ago, previously having grown Conference pears as a hobby on our smallholding. We were able to purchase an existing fruit farm that was being sold, the previous owner having had enough of a difficult job. The farm consisted of Conference pears, Bramleys and some arable land, and taking the advice that was available at the time, we began to replant with dessert varieties.

Ten years ago there were only 1 or 2 commercial organic apple and pear producers in England and demand outside of supermarkets was not great but much has changed, box schemes and organic shops are at last stealing a march on the big fish. Much has been learnt in ten years about the practice and techniques necessary to grow consistent crops to supply our customers.

Many of our orchards established organically proved completely uneconomic, producing very low yields of poor quality apples and pears, so we have had to be pragmatic and grub out any replant for the future. Our farm is a haven for wildlife with woodland shores, ponds and many areas left unmown to promote biodiversity. We were fortunate some years ago to be asked to manage a community orchard of apples and pears, again in a wonderful setting with a stream running through the middle and, part of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, this had now been organic for some years and produces reasonable yields of Conference Pears and Falstaff apples.

Three years ago we were approached and asked if we would be interested in entering into a long-term lease on a neighboring fruit farm, which was previously growing conventional produce. Such is the pressure to produce cheap food, most of the smaller apple and pear growers have left the industry as the returns they receive for the crops are at or below the cost of production. We were delighted to take on this land as it is in the Kent High Weald with good aspect soil and a fantastic mix of woodland shores, uncultivated areas and thick hedges and windbreaks that contain a wealth of wildlife and biodiversity. It would also enable us to provide a more consistent supply for our customers. The major difficulty of maintaining consistent supplies in organic production is the 'off' year, biennial cropping means a feast and a famine, therefore more orchards can mean more consistent supplies

These orchards have now been in the Soil Association Organic Conversion since July 2004, the land is now fully organic but the tree fruit produced needs an additional year to become fully organic. This results in what seems to be a very long 3-year conversion period. We have been very fortunate in that many of our existing customers have been delighted to support our organic conversion and take our in conversion produce into the market, at a time when most of the fully organic produce is coming to an end, substituting imported produce, minimising food miles and the associated environmental impact

We are very optimistic about our future organic production. This winter we are planting new orchards with delicious varieties which are far more suited to Organic management and are grafting over many poorly performing varieties to those which we know will be more consistent in years to come.