The State of the Apple Industry (Sept 2001)

When we arrived at Cross Lanes some twenty years ago there were eight other orchards around Reading. Today we are the sole survivors. Sadly this is not an isolated example, but one illustrative of a general trend.

In the mid 1950s there were three thousand commercial apple growers in Britain, today that figure is just eight hundred- many of those being very small scale. We therefore have to ask the question; why has this occurred and what can be done to reverse the change?

The Cause
It is easy to dismiss this change as just part of a greater agricultural decline that is inevitable in a world with plentiful cheap labour. Of course, it is argued, we can not grow apples at a profit here when it can be done in third world countries for a fraction of the cost. Is it time we just stuck to the hi-tech businesses we are good at running and left farming to those who are paid less?

This might be a convenient argument, but it is not based on the reality. The fact of the matter is that many, indeed the majority, of our apples are imported from countries which are just as wealthy as we are. These include our EU partners, the United States and Commonwealth countries. These countries cannot get a competitive advantage by using cheap labour, in fact labour costs in many of these countries exceed those in Britain.

A large part of the answer may lie in our relationship with the European Union. In an attempt to give farmers a fair quality of life and a guaranteed income the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was developed during the early days of the EEC. Part of this CAP enabled 'Europe' to buy up produce from farmers should the price drop below a certain level. Instead of using an efficiency drive to enable farmers to make a profit, for example by reforming French inheritance laws by which farms get smaller and smaller after every generation, Europe decided to guarantee farmers an income.

This policy was not suited to Britain, which had already reformed its agriculture after the war, because it all to often discriminated against our methods. For example, in the apple industry the main English variety (Cox Orange Pippin) was excluded from the intervention scheme. This meant that huge over production on the continent was being subsidised by Europe, with British growers getting none of the benefit.

Continental apple farmers, especially the French with their popular Golden Delicious variety, could thus undercut the British by a large amount using their subsidies. Furthermore, the glut of apples produced as a result of the intervention scheme, drove down the price of Golden Delicious, making Cox's unaffordable.

The ludicrous nature of the CAP's intervention schemes is borne out by the following figures; Europe produces 10 million apples per year, yet has demand for only 7-8 million. 'Apple mountains' were created, with, as I have explained, great damage to British growers. However, not only did we suffer, the third world found cheap intervention produce being dumped on their shores at knocked down prices, putting out of business local people. And for all this, does the consumer benefit? No, they pay the equivalent of 5 pence on income tax to fund CAP!!

There is therefore no doubt that our entry into the European Union has had a seriously detrimental impact upon our Apple Industry. In so many areas we were promised that entry into the EU would facilitate free trade, and in many it has. However with agriculture free trade has not been expanded, it has been restricted. The continental view of agriculture as an essential state service to be funded by the tax payer has resulted in this mess, and even caused difficulties in World Free Trade negotiations with the United States.
    -The Sellers and the Buyers
How many French supermarkets stock English apples? How many English supermarkets stock French apples? The answer to the first question is probably none, the answer to the second; almost all.

There are many reasons why this is the case. The first is simply a fact of national character. The French are a patriotic people who will buy, if at all possible, French produce. The British, by contrast, seem to delight in the purchase of foreign foods perhaps believing them to be more exotic. To be seen to care where your food comes from is felt to be petty and stupid nationalism, rather than just sensible and logical. The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 concluded that food should be grown and sold in the same region to save on transport costs, both financial and environmental. Why does Britain therefore import 75% of its apples when it could perfectly well grow all it needs at home? The fact that there is no consumer pressure to buy British, or little in comparison with other European countries, enables the supermarkets to get away with importing apples even at the peak of the British season- a terrible sight for the farmer!

There have also been reports of shelf space being 'bought' by foreign farmers or their representatives using subsidies designed for 'promotional work'. These subsidies are not available to British apple farmers because of the different structure of the industry here.

Perhaps the most important factor is the suitability of British varieties for supermarket sale. The traditional Cox Orange Pippin has great taste and flavour, but does not have a regular shape or a shiny smooth skin. As a result they do not look good on the supermarket shelf in comparison with the manufactured-looking Golden Delicious or Gala. The subsidies received by the Golden Delicious growers have been used to fund advertising campaigns such as 'Le crunch', which have distorted the impression most people have of what an apple should be about. Crimson, flavoursome and firm have been replaced by green, tasteless and crisp. To many young people today a cox barely tastes like an apple at all. They pull a face like someone who's been duped by an own-label cola on tasting what used to be the pride of Britain.

What we hope will happen....

It is possible that the British people will wake up to what is happening to their farmers. If this happens and pressure is put on retailers to buy British then the apple industry might just recover. It is doubtful, though, that anything of any substance will occur until the disastrous Common Agricultural Policy is revoked. The prospects for this are very slim because of the vested interests in other European Governments for CAP to survive untouched.

What probably will happen......

Since CAP will remain in place and the modern idea of 'Le crunch' will persist, it is unlikely that large scale apple growing in the UK will be able to survive. Growing apples to receive 8 or 9 p/lb is just not economical, especially when regulations mean it can cost at least this to pack and transport.

The last time English apples were threatened in the 1880s (by newer American varieties) there was a revolt. A fruit crusade was mounted with an enthusiasm only ever brought on by a sense of imminent loss. The threat was dealt with and a renaisance began. The great varieties of Blenheim and Cox were planted in many a garden; sadly it is from these trees that you must now gleen your apples.....unless of course you are prepared to accept the badly named Golden Delicious.

Small scale production for sale in farm shops will be the only source of traditional varieties in the future- it is, of course, into this category that Cross Lanes falls.

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