Developments in horticultural equipment are helping UK growers to farm more efficiently and strengthen the UK supply chain, Produce Business UK discovers
From hand-held scanning devices to the latest cold-storage systems, a plethora of innovative technologies are used throughout the fresh-produce supply chain to help its businesses remain both profitable and sustainable.
One of the key areas where new technologies are being utilised is at the heart of production, in the fields and orchards where fruit and vegetables are grown. New machinery is being trialled, or used for the first the time, on many different crops in the UK this year as companies seek to save money, operate more efficiently and produce better quality crops.
One such firm is Cambridgeshire-based salad producer G’s – part of a group of British salad and brassica growers that is this year trialling the new automated transplanting system, Plant Tape. A group of delegates from The London Produce Show was given a glimpse of this state-of-the-art machinery in use at one of G’s farms in Ely. There, G’s CEO John Shropshire explained to the group that it is in his business’ interests continually to invest in, and try out, new technologies. He says: “The challenge is to keep everything at spec. It takes a huge amount of capital to keep the thing turning over, which is why so many fully integrated businesses have not been successful.”
Transforming field vegetable production
The delegates learned how the Plant Tape system is being trialled every other week on 2% of the firm’s Little Gem lettuce plantings. The system was first developed in Spain around a decade ago but has recently been purchased by prominent US lettuce producer, Tanimura & Antle, after its CEO Rick Antle was impressed with its performance.
The tour group discovered how the seedlings are grown in a long strip of “tape. ” These seedling strips are loaded onto the Plant Tape transplanting machine, which automatically cuts the tape around each individual seedling and then slots each plant into the ground. Grower Rob Parker, who manages both Shropshire’s Little Gem and iceberg lettuce crops, says: “The idea of this machine is increased efficiency, reduced planting costs and increased yields. The Plant Tape crops root quicker in the soil, which means they produce a healthier, stronger plant with a better shelf life. It’s a whole new concept for salad production that we are striving for.”
Parker also points out how much speedier the Plant Tape machine is compared to conventional transplanting systems. He says: “The Plant Tape machine travels at 10km an hour, while the conventional machine travels at 2.5-3km an hour.”
Parker highlights that in a single day, three people using the Plant Tape machine can plant the same volume of lettuce as 11 people using the conventional machine.
Plant Tape evidently has the potential to transform field-crop production and has arrived onto the horticulture scene in a similar way in which Peterborough-based Garford Farm Machinery introduced its Robocrop InRow Weeder to the market some seven years ago. Garford’s sales representative George Hall confirms that the machine continues to be popular amongst growers as it helps to reduce their labour and pesticide costs by mechanically removing weeds between rows of crops at a rate of four rows per second.
Garford this year discovered that the machine also works well on pumpkin crops. Hall says: “We have just done three demos on pumpkins, which obviously shows that the system is not just for lettuce and brassicas.” He adds that, although one or two smaller growers have invested in the Robocrop InRow Weeder, it is predominantly the larger growers such as G’s and Huntapac Produce that use the system.
Clearly, as growers’ profit margins can often be tight, for many smaller fresh produce firms, the introduction of new and unfamiliar pieces of machinery onto their farms is a big deal. For this reason, Garford developed Bio Weeder. Launched this year the machine enables growers to use InRow Weeder technology without having to buy a new tractor. Hall says: “It’s designed to be rear-mounted on a tractor and can tackle a maximum of six rows in salad crops. If you have an existing tractor we can put in on as opposed to them [the growers] buying a new tractor.”
Developing fruit production
Just as weeding is one of the main costs for field vegetable and salad growers, pruning and blossom thinning are two of the major expenses for top-fruit growers. A couple of new machines have therefore been recently introduced to the UK market to help alleviate these financial burdens.
Top-fruit grower Peter Checkley, of Howard Chapman’s Broadwater Farm in Kent, is one of only a few UK growers to have invested in an Italian FA-MA pruning machine, which he hopes will result in pruning cost savings of up to 60%.
Checkley says: “We are using it in conjunction with the Darwin Blossom Thinner, which we have had for a few years now. I saw another grower use the FA-MA pruner and it looked really good so I persuaded my employers to buy one. We were a little bit scared of it to start with, so this year we have just done bits of the farm with it. We will do a lot more with it this coming winter.
“We are very much looking at how we can reduce the costs of fruit growing. We have had to sell our fruit for 20% less than we have to in other years, mainly because of the euro [exchange rate]. My feeling is that if we are going to farm apples in the future, then we have to do it for less money. We have to find out how we can remove costs so that we can still be farming in future.”
Nick Seymour, of Kent-based horticulture machinery provider NP Seymour, points out that quite a few growers are investing in another type of new pruner – the BMV Orchard Trimmer, which has disk-like blades as opposed to the FA-MA vertical cutting blades. He says: “We have been selling them for the past four years. The forward-thinking growers have made investments and those who follow are looking at it.”
Seymour admits that, despite the obvious benefits of new machinery, some growers are “still sitting on the fence”. Their reluctance to commit is understandable, but there is a growing bank of evidence to suggest that it’s more than worth taking a chance.