Keeping Kent Growing
Enchanting orchards, luscious pastures and vibrant fields of greens – farming is an ode to the beauty of Kent. A practice rooted in the county’s heritage and one to thank for its magnificent countryside, it is crucial we keep this legacy alive.
By Olivia Riccini
Although it is said to be King Henry VIII that crowned Kent as The Garden of England, it was in fact our neolithic ancestors that resided over 4,000 years ago that first established Kent’s roots at the forefront of fruit-growing in the UK. Almost unrecognisable in comparison to the apples we eat today, these bitter fruits grew wild across the county, and it wasn’t until Romans arrived on Kentish shores that domestic fruit varieties, with sweeter and greater taste, were introduced.
According to Kent Orchards (www.kentorchards.org), the 1300s saw cherries being grown in the service of the church, with a record stating that the Manor of Teynham took 20 pence as a payment for cherries (ciresis) picked for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Little is known as to whether the fruit was produced by independent growers and sold to the church, if the monks cultivated the fruit on their own land, or employed others to do it for them. Over 700 years later, Kent is at the forefront of the fruit growing industry in the UK, claiming 90% of cherries grown in England and 50% of plums grown in the country – two staggering figures considering this is just one corner of Britain. With almost 10,000 fruit crops on commercial holdings, it is miles ahead of the rest of the country and even the region in second place, Herefordshire, which has just over 6,500.
However, it is not just fruit that Kent excels at growing. According to a DEFRA report, Kent has the most farms and smallholdings in the South East, with over 2,700 throughout the county. These cover all kinds of farms, from cereals to livestock, spanning over 221,000 hectares of farmland and countryside. But why is Kent just so perfect for produce? The answer is simple science. With one of the warmest climates in the UK, plenty of sunshine, fertile soil and chalky earth perfect for drainage, Kent has the ideal combination of factors that make fruits, vegetables and plants easier to grow than in any other British counties. This, combined with Kent’s close proximity to London, our rivers and eventually our trainlinks, meant produce could be easily shipped into the city, thus Kent cemented its heralded status as an unrivalled place for crop production.
The real testament to Kent’s Garden of England glory however, lies in the taste. Year after year, Kent continues to come up trumps in a myriad of competitions and awards in this area. This includes the National Fruit Show (www.nationalfruitshow.org.uk), the best showcase for British apples and pears when they are at their absolute peak having just been harvested. In the last show that saw apples from the 2022 harvest, the judges reported that the taste, colour and size of the apples were all excellent, with a real depth and range of flavours – and the vast majority of the winners being from, yes, you guessed it: Kent. “In short this is one of the very best tasting harvests that British growers have produced and we would encourage shoppers to look out for and buy British apples and pears in the supermarkets now and to help support British growers,” commented executive chair Sarah Calcutt. But in an economic climate that threatens homegrown produce and the businesses that grow it, how can we do more to ensure that Kent continues to ‘keep growing’ and thrive in a world where it is becoming increasingly more difficult for farmers to do so?
insideKENT spoke to Canterbury-based fruit grower, David Riccini, who has over 40 years of commercial fruit growing and consultation experience behind him. “The 2022 season began promisingly, albeit with the unknown knock on consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine yet to unfold. Fruit set was good, the weather favourable. The drought, Europe wide, had an effect on fruit size, particularly where irrigation was unavailable, making apples and pears across Europe smaller than usual. It is important to note that British apple customers prefer to buy smaller sized fruit than their counterparts in the EU who prefer theirs 10mm larger. Though UK supermarkets are not the best paying, the UK is regarded by the rest of Europe as a reasonable outlet for the continent’s smaller fruit not required at home.” So what does that mean for us and British fruit?
“Poland is now the largest producer of apples in Europe, but their preferred market was, until sanctions hit, Russia. Consequently, that volume of apples desperately needed a new home within Europe, displacing domestic production of many countries at a huge discount.” David added. “Everyone looked at the UK as a new home for the surplus supply of smaller than average apples, and our supermarkets were happy to take advantage of the discounts offered.
Additionally, the shortage of labour in the UK has had an effect beyond wage inflation with growers having to pay over the odds to get fruit picked or leave it on the trees. All inputs are subject to inflation, particularly energy, growers spending massive amounts on electricity for cold storage, and of course picking up the tab for road fuel in distribution.” A disturbing outlook that has all the power to hit the future of Kent’s Garden of England heritage hard, not to mention the rest of Britain.
David continued: “We’re not expecting an improvement in 2023; growers are cancelling investments, particularly in new orchards, grubbing out marginal ones, and cutting costs wherever possible in an attempt to ride it out and get to season 2024 intact.” The National Farmers Union stress that the UK needs a secure and continuous supply of British fruit now and in the future, stating that ‘recent events across the world show we cannot always rely on other countries to provide for us. In the last two years alone, a pandemic, a war and an economic crisis have all put pressure on food production and our supply chains. Our shops should never be empty of any ingredients that are produced by British farmers and growers.’ Although ultimately our government needs to make practical changes to their system, we as consumers can still make sure that the future of Kentish agriculture, and in turn our Kentish countryside, is never threatened.
When shopping for fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, always read the label to make sure you are aware of growing origins. If you are carbon footprint and plastic consumption conscious, this is all the more important, as British grown produce uses up so much less. Kent, London and the rest of the country are awash with brilliant farmers’ markets, farm shops and smaller grocery stores that buy directly from local farmers – they are not only a great place to shop to ensure maximum freshness and British origins, but are also a wonderful retail experience. Macknade Faversham, The Goods Shed Canterbury, Perry Court Farm and Broadditch Farm Shop near Gravesend are just some of insideKENT’s favourites. With fresh produce that has travelled fewer miles, flavour, freshness and nutrient levels are also at their optimum. Bristol-based nutritional therapist Eva Kileen explains: “Ripe fruits and vegetables contain the most nutrients, as the minute they’re picked, their plant cells begin to shrink and their nutrients diminish – as does the impact of their flavour.” Buying locally grown food will also benefit you economically too. “Every time you buy produce from someone other than a local producer your money leaves the local economy,” says Eva. “By shopping locally you keep money in your area, which helps to sustain local producers and create local jobs. By supporting your local farmer today, you’ll help ensure that there will be farms in your community tomorrow. This is vital for our long-term food security, especially with an uncertain energy future and our current reliance on fossil fuels to produce, package, transport and store food.” (From www.betterfood.co.uk.)
The majority of Kent’s countryside is made up of agricultural land, and it is important to remember that our enchanting orchards, lucious pastures and fields of veggies and cereals would not exist without the farmers that utilise them. Agriculture and horticulture lies at the centre of Kent’s heritage, and to make sure our countryside is kept as countryside, it is imperative that we buy British produce. Our growing heritage can be enjoyed today beyond the eating of fruit, from the stunning countryside it has created to the beautiful architecture that has been built across the land. Famous for our oast houses, used for drying hops in the beer brewing process, visitors to Kent can witness these up close while learning about our farming heritage at attractions such as Kent Life (www.kentlife.org.uk) near Maidstone and The Hop Farm (www.thehopfarm.co.uk) in Paddock Wood. Kent Life is a 28-acre working heritage farm on which to tell the story of everything once Kentish and one of the few remaining places in Britain where hops are grown, harvested, dried and packed in its magnificent Oast house, by hand, using only time-honoured traditional techniques.
However, farming in Kent is not just a thing of the past – it is an ever evolving process of science and research. A place that not only heralds the industry’s history but also celebrates Kent’s legacy and fruit-growing future is Brogdale Collections (www.brogdalecollections.org) on Brogdale Farm near Faversham. Home of the National Fruit Collection, Brogdale works to provide access and education about fruit. Set in over 150 acres of farmland, Brogdale has over 4,000 varieties of fruit trees from apples, pears, quinces and plums to cherries and more. Visitors of all ages are welcomed to Brogdale with self-guided tours available any time of the day or year. Spend as much time as you like wandering the pathways, enjoying the countryside and discovering the fruits cycle from blossom to fruit and frost. The largest collection of fruit at Brogdale is the apple, followed by pears, cherries, plums, quince, nuts and medlars. April is the perfect time to venture to Brogdale to enjoy the blossoming trees, a truly spectacular array of natural beauty – the fruit blossom in Kent is not to be missed.
The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD; there are several mentions of cherries being cultivated in Britain by the Romans especially in Kent but other sources suggest wild varieties could have been growing in Kent before the invasion, and these bitter little berries would be nothing like the juicy modern varieties we love so much today. With cherry season starting in July, a time which sees a frenzy of fruit lovers search Kent’s farm shops, stalls and greengrocers for the biggest and juiciest cherries, we still have a few months to get through before we reach this delicious time. It is slim picking for seasonal fruit in April – with rhubarb topping the charts, but with a multitude of health benefits from glowing skin to stronger bones, as well as being packed with antioxidants with anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties, a rhubarb crumble or sugar stewed rhubarb, might be just your answer to an April pudding. When it comes to veggies, this month is plentiful, with delicious favourites such as asparagus, spring greens, cauliflower, kale, radishes, spring onions, samphire, watercress and more growing in abundance and thus adorning our farm shops, greengrocers and supermarket shelves.
So, whether you’re a lover of the Kentish countryside, someone keen to keep Kent’s heritage and future alive, or simply a foodie who craves optimum flavour, there’s no better way to fulfil these passions than being an advocate of local produce. Protect your countryside and county, and keep Kent growing by buying local – it does a world of good.