On Sunday 24 September 2023, BBC Countryfile broadcast a segment on the dire state of the British apple industry. Two British apple growers shared their personal experiences of the challenges they face and how low supermarket returns are causing them to make a loss and remove some orchards. One clearly stated that there may well not be anything to pass on to the next generation as the business was at risk.
Many of us have been brought up on the old adage that ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ something that is clearly linked to the nutritional benefits associated with the humble apple – packed with fibre, full of water and plenty of essential nutrients and anti-oxidants. Many of us will also remember taking an apple to school each day as part of a packed lunch too.
Things have changed, in particular over the past couple of years where British growers have faced a perfect storm – soaring inflation and the rising costs associated with two of their major costs, energy and labour.
New data released by British Apples & Pears Limited (‘BAPL’), exposes the dramatic shift in the fortunes of British apple and pear growers.
BAPL has analysed the published business results of a number of growers that together represent over 70% of the British apple and pear industry and the findings are not good.
The results show a dramatic drop in profitability, the levels of which are simply not sustainable for the longer term.
We spoke to Ali Capper, Executive Chairman of BAPL, the dynamic organisation of apple and pear growers who work together to supply a delicious, high quality and sustainably-grown British crop, year after year to understand more about the challenges currently facing our growers.
As Ali explains, “Grower confidence is on the floor and across six major growers the average level of profits has declined by 133% year on year. What this means in reality is that each of these representative businesses has suffered a very significant reduction in profit with many incurring substantial losses. This was inevitable because while the price of apples to the consumer has increased, input cost inflation to growers ran at around 23% while supermarkets paid growers, on average, only 0.8% more than the previous year.”
“The situation is not sustainable and things need to change as this season draws to a close or for some it will be there last season growing, and the long term implications for the sector as a whole look uncertain too as the lack of profitability is driving change through reduced investment on all levels – machinery, robotics and more importantly the orchards,” continues Ali.
“We tend to see orchards replanted in full every fifteen or so years so with poor performance and lack of profitability over the past couple of years as a result of inflationary pressures, growers have had to make difficult decisions and that has consequences for the industry going forward,” she adds.
For many of the leading apple and pear growers across the UK the business has been in the family for generations, with skills being passed down from generation to generation. Investment over the years has continued but for now certain difficult decision are having to be taken. Whilst there is a desire to continue to invest, the funds from trading are simply not available.
As Ali continues, “For some there is fear of the business failing and the future for many is not even in their own hands. Decisions are having to be made on commercial performance and sadly there is little room for manoeuvre. Growers are facing increased costs for energy and labour and there is little way to reduce these costs and despite some of the schemes available to support businesses with increasing energy costs, they do not apply to businesses in our sector.”
“Furthermore, some of the actions of supermarkets need to be called into question as shoppers are already paying more for their apples and pears as it appears retailers have increased their prices to cover the increased costs that they are incurring but not taking into account the increased cost of food production and it is clear that someone is making a profit and it is certainly not the growers. The numbers do not lie. Apple growers are not receiving a fair return from supermarkets. This is putting the future of British apple growing at risk. It’s a situation that must change and change quickly.”
Change is needed and our growers need more support. As Ali continues, “If retailers really were ‘doing their best to ensure a sustainable future’ as claimed by the British Retail Consortium, we would not see farmers pulling out of apple growing and reducing the numbers of new trees they’re planning on planting.”
The industry is already subject to plenty of regulation to grow the perfect apple for shoppers in store and that again adds to the challenge for our food producers. “Specifications are very tight,” continues Ali.
“In many respects the specifications would be more relevant to a manufacturer producing marbles in a factory where everything can be measured and controlled but this is a far cry form growing apples outdoor with all the challenges of the British weather that affect production on a daily basis, but it is an outdoor crop and it is certainly not easy,” she continues.
“We want profit-led investment by growers, but that requires a fair return from supermarkets and the growers themselves need more support too.”
“This is an exciting industry and prior to the last couple of years with the level of inflation that we have all seen there has been plenty to shout about. Investment has been significant over the years, the inventory was growing and productivity was increasing too. Growers have introduced lots of innovation and invested heavily in their businesses and were optimistic about the future, introducing new varieties and planting new orchards,” continues Ali.
“People like eating apples, and the want to support British growers too and seeing home grown apples and pears is much better for the planet than shipping in produce from overseas. We understand that retailers want to guarantee a supply all year round but there is plenty of scope to increase the proportion of domestic produce from 40% of the total sold without compromising on the supply chain.”
As Ali concludes, “A lot needs to be done and the farming community needs support to ensure that our growers are still doing what they do best in years to come, as they have done for generations. Our growers need to be able to look to the future, plan as they have done for years to invest money made back into the business and secure their future, and the food supply from Britain for the retailers. We continue to work hard to drive change and offer our support but more needs to be done.”
“We encourage everyone to check the produce when they are next out shopping for fruit and vegetables and wherever possible to shop local and buy British. But we need to make sure that the growers are rewarded for their endeavours in order for us to continue enjoying British apples and pears for years to come as well.”
“Support our growers so that they can continue to grow fabulous apples and pears for us all to enjoy each and every day.”
Find out more about BAPL by visiting their website here.