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Are supermarkets taking us for a ride?

Clive Goatham, a champion of English apples and pears, says we are all being hoodwinked by the supermarkets who tell us what type of food we should be eating and are more concerned with the aesthetics of food rather than value.

Clive, 59, senior partner in A C Goatham and Son, together with his fellow partner and son, Ross, 32, have built up the business which was launched in 1947 by Clive’s father, Arthur, into one of the three major ‘top fruit’ producers in the UK.

He is a major supplier to Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s but is happy to air a note of caution about an industry that has worries over carbon footprints and yet sees produce being imported when there is no need, and good English produce being ploughed back into the ground because it doesn’t match up to what the supermarkets feel we want.

Speaking from his office at Street Farm, Hoo, just one of 14 farms owned by the company, Clive said: “We have a situation where the supermarkets say we will only eat a perfectly formed apple that conforms to a standard size adopted by the large multiples.

“This is clearly nonsense, particularly if we talk about people over the age of 40. Just down the road there is a lovely crop of purple sprouting broccoli which the farmer knows he will have to plough back into the ground because the supermarkets will say the stalk is a millimetre too thick or the florets are slightly too small.

“This is good food we are wasting purely because there is no market for it. The large multiples will not negotiate. They have us over a barrel to the disadvantage of the consumer, we feel.

“To rub salt in the wound, we, the produce-buying public, have no say in the matter.

“What affect the recently publicised ombudsmen will have over the way supermarkets deal with suppliers remains to be seen. Something has to be done, but I don’t know when or how it will ever happen.” said Clive.

“The Government is, quite rightly, saying that we should buy local and then oversee a situation where foreign apples and pears are being imported while English versions go to make juice.”

Clive and Ross both know that English apples and pears are the very best, but the problem will remain as long as the supermarkets depress values by saying everything must be cheap, yet perfectly formed.

“The Government must find a way of giving us confidence. After all, our company has invested £15 million in the last three or four years supporting the production of the finest apples and pears,” said Clive.

One of the more exciting projects Goathams are involved in at the moment is the development of new apple varieties for which they have exclusive UK growing rights.

Of Belgian origin, the two new varieties, Zari and Zonga, are being grown in the UK for the first time at Griffin Farm, Sutton Valence, purchased by Clive two years ago from apple grower, David Boxall, who has now retired.

“I am very pleased with the purchase and the way the development is going,” said Clive. “The site is very conducive to growing this new breed of early apple which, we hope, will compete with the far from satisfactory Discovery apple which supermarkets know has a very poor shelf life. Our first harvest will be this August.”

A C Goatham and Son Ltd are currently farming close to 1,000 acres in Kent either on land owned and operated by the company or through tenanted farmers. With a labour force of between 300 and 600 depending upon the season, they produce 20,000 tons of apples per year – an eighth of the country’s growing capacity.

Clive and Ross are proud of the fact that they provide value to those who grow apples on their behalf.

“We have an honest grower base,” said Ross. “They get value for their fruit and we are constantly trying to increase our market share. Half the fruit we produce comes from farms we own.”

Looking to the future, Clive agrees with the Government that Britain must become more self-sufficient.

“But it has to be sustainable and at the moment the industry is not sustainable because of the value of the product to the producer. We do what supermarkets tell us and the British people are paying more for their produce than they need to pay. Some farmers only harvest 20 per cent of their crop because its appearance does not satisfy the template laid down by the supermarket.

“Thirty per cent of our Cox production goes to producing juice. We don’t make money on this. It just pays us what we would have had to pay to dump the crop. As far as Cox’s are concerned, we have had to bastardise the breed to get a smoother skin acceptable by the supermarket.

“We are often asked, ‘What’s happened to all the traditional varieties?’

“Well, as forward thinking businessmen, we have to decide if these well known and well loved varieties have, in fact, become far too uneconomical to grow. With this being true of so many others, Cox is fast approaching this crossroads.”

“Even with our high yielding, high colour, modern varieties, our industry needs a 10-12 per cent increase in average values to enable us to reinvest in the future. But there is not a chance of this happening at the moment,” says Clive.

“This mindset must change.”