The first National Fruit Show took place on Wednesday 19 and Thursday 20 October 1933, exactly 78 years later, the Show is still representative of its industry.
British growers in the 1930s had plenty to contend with, orchards were often overcrowded some had other crops such as gooseberries and blackberries and in Kent many orchards were grown in hop gardens to ensure the grower gained as much income as possible. It was in the 1930s that East Malling Research Station, which had been established in 1913, offered growers and nurserymen viable rootstocks with orchards being planted with Malling16 (M16) and CrabC.
The famous M9 rootstock was one of the first released by this selection programme. Although M9 was available, M2 with its promise of early production was a draw for many growers. It was only after problems with the control of tree vigour on M2 that large numbers of orchards were planted using M9, which still remains one of the most widely planted commercial rootstocks, a standardised form known as Jaune de Metz which was sourced from Europe.
The standard trees in many orchards at the time had a large trunk averaging 6ft 6in and an overall height of 25ft – 30ft. The planting distance was 24ft – 36ft apart, the most popular dessert varieties to plant at this time were Cox’s Orange Pippin, Beauty of Bath, James Grieve and Laxton’s Superb and culinary varieties included Bramley, Lord Derby, Grenadier and Howgate.
In the 1940s and 1950s former National Fruit Show Chairman, Alan Todd remembers the shift from standard trees to bush trees which cropped in 5-8 years. Alan recalls Cox being the main variety grown in Kent orchards as well as a number of culinary varieties. It was during these decades that storage became more important until that time fruit was often stored on straw in barns on in certain areas in Oast houses.
The stores of the 1950s were expensive and it was necessary for growers to work together, this heralded the start of the grower co-operatives that we still have today. By working together growers were able to lease or purchase graders and sprayers and other machinery that was beginning to streamline the business. Inter cropping was phased out and lighter pruning led to earlier cropping.
The 1960s saw some of the biggest changes within the top fruit sector with East Malling Research Station releasing virus free dwarf rootstock that allowed nurserymen to finally produce viable quantities of good quality trees. New dessert varieties were planted and for the first time exceeded the traditional culinary varieties. New herbicides and rectangular planting changed the appearance of the commercial orchard.
It was during the 1980s that Gala began to be planted in British orchards. Gala is a cross between Kidd’s Orange Red and Golden Delicious the former being the offspring of Cox’s Orange Pippin and Red Delicious. Gala is effectively a union of three of the world’s most important and distinctive varieties, a high quality apple with the potential to deliver really good flavor, particularly when home grown. Braeburn had been grown in New Zealand since the 1950s and growers began planting in the UK in 1990s this late picking apple with its wonderful store qualities has dominated the supermarket shelves for two decades.
In the past few years new varieties have been planted and many of them are now available to buy in the supermarkets and with their own competition classes at the National Fruit Show. Kanzi (a cross Gala, Braeburn introduced in 2004), Rubens (a cross Elstar, Gala developed in Italy), Jazz (a cross between Braeburn and Gala) and Cameo (seedling of Red Delicious). Newer varieties are entered in to the ‘any other dessert variety’ class and once established in the market place gain their own competition at the October Show. This year Zari, a descendant of Elstar and Delbardestivale will make an appearance for the first time.
Alan Todd said: “The popularity of certain varieties waned over the years and many died out for very good reason; not least their susceptibility to pests and diseases. These varieties are important for scientific and heritage reasons but were not acceptable as viable crops for UK growers. Today we have excellent quality fruits being grown to the highest standards. Growers are increasing yields and are using the latest technology such as mechanical pruning and blossom thinning to manage their businesses.”
Sarah Calcutt, Chairman of the Marden Fruit Show Society explained: “The National Fruit Show reflects the industry: 20 years ago the competition would have seen varieties such as Spartan, Fiesta, Suntan, Jonagold and Jupiter. The only fruit that has remained constant over the decades is Cox. The consumer looks for a fruit that delivers flavour with great texture. The fruit also needs to be aesthetically pleasing with great store potential.”
According to the Telegraph, Britain’s favourite apple is now Gala with 22,000 tonnes being consumed in the UK closely followed by Cox with 21,600 tonnes (2010/2011 season). This statistic last year saw Cox knocked off the top spot for the first time and indicates a change in the palettes of consumers towards sweeter varieties. The National Fruit Show has been holding a ‘Tastiest Apple’ competition for a number of years, which has seen Cox winning in the past. Now new varieties are proving they have the qualities necessary to win this accolade – for example Rubens won first and second place in 2010.