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From the NS archive: England’s neglected orchards

29 January 1921: There has never been any real national interest in fruit-growing in this country.


In this article from 1921 the writer, who signed “SLB”, says that something feels rotten about Britain’s fruit production. They despair that greengrocers are stocked with “apples from America, plums from South Africa and peaches, apricots and other fruits from California” despite such varieties thriving in Britain’s rich soils. The demand for fruit is not low – in fact the country had to import “three million hundredweight of apples” in five months in 1919 to meet demand but they explain that “there has never been any real national interest in fruit growing in this country”. Orchards are a relatively new concept, the earliest believed to have been planted in the middle of the 18th century, in part to encourage cider-making and lessen the consumption of French wines. Yet where this had once appeared to be a prosperous industry, these orchards are decaying, their trees pest-ridden or dead.

Nothing in the agricultural world today is more unsatisfactory than the state of our orchards. Arable and dairy farming have been improved, special attention has been paid to neglected pastures and waterlogged fields; waste land has been brought under cultivation – unless it is land wasted by useless fruit trees. While Kent and Hereford and Worcestershire can show, in parts at least, signs of thoughtful treatment, wise expenditure and satisfactory results, the orchards throughout the rest of England are seldom worth serious consideration except so far as that consideration is devoted to the question of stubbing them. In the West of England and throughout Wales the condition of the trees is almost uniformly bad, and not one farmer in ten would appear to take his orchards seriously or to realise that they ought to represent a source of profit.

One finds apple trees, and sometimes pear trees, too, infected with blight, plums wasting under attacks of silver leaf, plantations of blackcurrants full of big bud, and the gooseberries with the terrible American mildew – an imported and most destructive disease. Nobody seems to mind, and let it be admitted that on some of the rich soils the trees still strive valiantly against neglect and disease, making the spring-time beautiful with their blossoming and enriching the fall of the year with their misshapen fruit. Yet it is very disquieting to find, in towns situated in parts of the country that should be full of home-grown fruit, the grocers’ shops showing little more than apples from America, plums from South Africa and peaches, apricots and other fruits from California and elsewhere in tins or bottles.

Apparently there has never been any real national interest in fruit growing in this country, although the planting of apple trees was encouraged in the latter part of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth centuries because we were constantly at war with France and it was considered desirable to promote cider-making in order to lessen the consumption of French wines. So it is to our quarrels rather than to deliberate husbandry that we owe many of the cider orchards that exist today, and there was a time when the making of cider and perry was a very prosperous industry indeed, and there were well-known varieties of cider-apples – the sweets, the bitter-sweets and the sours.

Today, where these orchards have not disappeared – and it is interesting to know that there are said to be no orchards in the country of earlier date than the middle of the eighteenth century – many of the dead trees are in the last stages of neglect. Some are mere dead stumps, cattle having been permitted to bark and kill them. Others are covered with moss and lichen or fungoid and insect pests. A recent return of the farm orchards in the West of England showed that they occupy nearly 90,000 acres and that at least half of this acreage is entirely unproductive. Of the remaining half only a small part produces good quality fruit.

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Naturally, as the quality of the trees deteriorates, the price paid for the fruit diminishes steadily, and in the end the farmer ceases to pay the least attention to his orchard. When he can get no more than a penny for three or four pounds of fruit, and may be asked to pick it in order to realise that amount, he cannot be expected to develop an enthusiasm for his fruit trees or to spare any labour for them, even though their present condition is due to little more than his own continuous neglect. It was noticeable that during the war when the import of apples was forbidden, and the price for home fruit ranged high, little or nothing was done to improve the trees that for once, and on account of abnormal conditions, were yielding a really profitable harvest. The writer on a tour through the West of England was able to assure himself that, as a rule, the orchards remained as neglected as ever. Nobody pruned them in the autumn or washed them in the spring; nobody cared how they were grazed.

At the same time it must be admitted that the old-fashioned pruners and grafters who were so well known in the cider country have died out. They are like the skeppists who looked after the old English black bee before the advent of the bar-framed hive. Their occupation is gone and they have followed it. Here and there in the West of England the well-kept fruit trees in a cottage garden testify to the presence of one of the old men who formerly took charge of fruit plantations and kept them clean, productive and beautiful to look upon.

Another contributory cause of the decline of the cider country orchards is the passing of the old custom under which cider served in lieu of a part of the farm labourer’s wages. Today he must take his minimum in cash, and as, in the majority of cases, the minimum and the maximum are one and the same, there is little temptation to keep the cider presses going. So it happens that the rough, rather unclean, but doubtless very healthy stuff that one drank in Devon and Somerset, fortunate if the skin remained on the tongue and roof of the mouth, is going out of demand on the farm and is retiring to its last line of defence – the public-house.

The problem before the agricultural authorities at present must be to redeem from utter waste the very many thousands of acres in the West of England and in Wales that are down to profitless trees. In the South and East of England and in Worcestershire and Herefordshire the condition is rather better because, of course, there has been a great deal of commercial fruit growing. The Kentish cherry and apple orchards and the fruit-growing districts of Sussex are well looked after, speaking generally, but here again the transport problem intervenes. We are apt to forget that the marketing of fruit on commercial lines depends upon cheap transport. The business at great urban centres dates from the time – the later Victorian era – when transport facilities first became available. Freights are absurdly high today and only those who send goods in bulk can enjoy comparatively reasonable rates.

The handling of our great markets leaves much to be desired. The grower is at the mercy of the salesmen, and although there are many people who profess to believe that there is no salesmen’s “ring,” yet the experiences of the amateurs who endeavour to send fruit to market are such that only the professionals persist. The market men on their defence point out that the packing and grading of English fruit are quite behind the needs of the times. They say that many growers pack carelessly and consequently damage the fruit, while in place of proper grading they give way to the foolish temptation of “topping,” that is to say, they put their best at the top of the basket, hoping against hope that the buyer will be so simple that he will take the sample for the bulk. Needless to say he does nothing of the kind; our markets exhibit many strange figures, but the simple buyer is not among them. Whatever the results, the small grower gets comparatively little for his fruit unless he happens to be raising forced luxuries, such as early spring strawberries and early summer peaches, while the general public gets far less fruit than it needs either for its pleasure or its health.

The one man who stood between the large section of the public that has a slender purse and the market dealers and greengrocers who would have withheld all cheap fruit and would have destroyed all surplus in order to maintain values, was the costermonger. He it was who bought up surpluses at very low prices and took them on his barrow into the crowded parts of the town, satisfied with a very modest profit and earning the thanks of thousands who, but for him, would have gone without fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, the war would seem to have killed the coster. Whether he volunteered and perished in “the imminent deadly breach,” or whether he profiteered and is today a greengrocer with a shop of his own, nobody seems to know; but the fact remains that his numbers are very seriously reduced and in many urban centres the place thereof knows him no more. There is reason to believe that surplus fruit follows surplus vegetables and surplus fish to the destructor today, in the high interests of sustained prices.

While England’s orchards are running to waste and the small fruit grower cannot break through the barriers of the transport companies and the market men, the trade in imported fruit grows steadily, and we find this country paying in a depreciated currency for the produce of foreign orchards. How it should be possible for California and New Zealand and South Africa to send their produce here and make money by doing so, while even the skilled English grower can hardly prevail against the gentlemen who run the market, is a question for which no satisfactory answer can be found. In the five autumn and early winter months of the year 1919 some three million hundredweight of apples alone were imported from abroad and made in the open market more money than the best dessert quality of home-grown fruit. Yet nobody is going to suggest that the apple from across the Atlantic Ocean can vie in flavour with, say, a Cox’s Orange Pippin that, twenty four hours before it was eaten, was hanging from some apple tree bough in a well-tended orchard.

Efforts are being made to improve the existing bad conditions. At East Malling, near Maidstone in Kent, at Long Ashton, near Bristol, and elsewhere the whole question of fruit production is being studied carefully, and today those who wish to plant an orchard have some safe lines to follow. They can learn what varieties are suitable to land they propose to plant, how the trees should be trained and on what stock they should be grown. We know today that the apple, pear, plum and cherry require their own special stocks according to the needs they are intended to serve, and that if they are grown without reference to these needs, they cannot possibly succeed. Experiment has shown that there are four systems of planting top fruit trees – the square, the quincunx, the triangular and the cordon. The distance between the trees, the preparation and cultivation of the soil round them, the best method of pruning, spraying, grease-banding and the rest are known, and fruit-growing today, instead of being a matter of guesswork, is a clearly defined part of horticultural science.

There is no doubt that orchards can be planted well and wisely, and that fruit of a quality and in a quantity altogether superior to that which has been produced at any previous time in our history can be raised with a little care and intelligence. Lectures and demonstrations are not wanting, a new generation of orchardists armed with sound knowledge as well as enthusiasm is springing up from the fertile soil of agricultural colleges and farm institutes. The problem left unsolved is to bring home the orchard produce to those who stand most in need of it; to distribute fruit at a fair price to all those urban centres in which it is impossible for the people to be self-suppliers; to evolve some reasonably cheap method of distribution and marketing that shall enable the grower and the consumer to be independent of those who, hitherto, have battened remorselessly upon both.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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