NI apple industry on brink of crisis

BRAMLEY apple prices are currently averaging less than £200 per tonne and according to Co Armagh grower Philip Troughton this means only one thing – significant losses for every local producer.

"And there's more bad news on the way," he told Farming Life.

"We now know that Magners' juicing plant will only be taking 5,000 tonnes of locally produced Bramleys in 2010. This is the same tonnage as last year. However, in the past well over 20,000 tonnes of Co Armagh Bramleys went for juicing."

Philip continued: "Magners had previously indicated they might take up to 7,000 tonnes of apples this year, if we get a decent summer. However, this week's decision by the Chancellor to significantly increase the rate of duty on cider has knocked this option on the head, irrespective of the weather. The possibility of cider sales increasing this year is now a very remote one."

Philip went on to point out that local processors, the main buyers of Co Armagh Bramleys, have imported significant tonnages of produce from England.

"These imports are, to a large extent, responsible for driving down local producer price at the present time," he further explained.

"Traditionally, local growers have stored imported apples on behalf of processors and yes they get a fee for this. But, in many ways, growers are still cutting their own throats as it would take only a small lift in the prices they receive for their own produce to improve the viability of their overall businesses. Imports are driving down Armagh Bramley prices and the practice of local growers storing such apples can only be described as voodoo economics."

Adding to the challenge of the apple industry in Northern Ireland is the need for growers to build new controlled oxygen stores over the next 24 months, in order to be compliant with recently agreed EU storage regulations.

"The reality is that growers do not have the money they need to invest in the new stores," Philip confirmed.

"The apple sector in Northern Ireland is really under the cosh at the present time and it will take a co-ordinated push by the industry to get us out of our present difficulties."

So what are the possible solutions to the challenges facing apple growers at the present time?

"Producing apples at a loss makes no sense at all," Philip stressed.

"There is now a market for around 32,000 tonnes of locally grown bramleys. In a normal year growers can produce around 35,000 tonnes, which significantly exceeds current demand.

There is now a market for around 32,000 tonnes but this is declining. In a normal year growers currently produce around 35,000 tonnes but when the recently planted bramley orchards come into production this will increase significantly.

"Also, in 2009, several stores of apples were not required by the processing industry and had to be disposed of as animal feed after having been stored for almost a year.

"Given these circumstances the only answer is for growers to grub out a proportion of their orchards. In my case I have already taken out of production those orchards that are yielding less than 40 bins of apples per acre and have replaced them with trial plots of eating apples."

He concluded: "We have too many older orchards in Northern Ireland that are both yielding poorly and producing high levels of poorer quality fruit. As growers we have become too dependent on a single variety. Those growers who want to stay in production must take out older trees that are not paying their way and commit to an investment in new, higher yielding varieties on less acreage.

"Maintaining the status quo is not an option. Bramley producers must recognise the need for change now; otherwise the future for apple growing in Co Armagh is extremely bleak."