Gardening: Apples of my eye

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The Independent Online
There can't be many counties that boast a product such as Hereford's cider. What I like about it is that we grow the apples, make the drink and sell it worldwide. Better still is the fact that it is one of the rare products whose manufacture seems to be making a good landscape and not a horrid one.

The county's potatoes are excellent, but a potato field is not an exceptional place and certainly not a thing that distinguishes countryside. Our Hereford cattle make some meadows luminously lovely, but we produce hardly more beef than other counties. Our huge poultry industry depends on worrying sheds, like everyone else's.

But Bulmers' apples are different. The firm has nearly half the UK cider market, and its share is overwhelmingly supplied by apples grown locally. The numbers are colossal: Bulmers' plant in the city can take about 80,000 tonnes of apples, and must do it during October, November and December. Thank God it's still near the centre of town, and at harvest time contributes nicely to the sense that this is a working place. Among the artics bringing in 20 tonnes of apples at a throw, there are innumerable tractors and trailers, each speaking of a small producer bringing in the crop from a few field-sized orchards.

Things have changed, of course. In the Fifties and Sixties, Bulmers could use only maybe 40,000 tonnes of apples. The firm increased production and planted, or paid farmers to plant, the kind of orchards we all really love. Roughly speaking, the idea was to plant rather tall-growing trees, spaciously, in often quite small fields, and to graze animals among them.

These small orchards are now running ragged and neglected, and we mourn them. It would be nice to think they might make a comeback, but the truth appears to be that combining grazing and fruit production does not work.

During the Seventies, the firm started encouraging farmers to plant what are called 'bush' trees, and on a very big scale. The old habit of planting 40 trees to the acre was abandoned, and now much smaller trees, at around 300 to the acre, are favoured.

The result is a rather ordered landscape. The trees are in soldierly rows and are highly trained. But they are by no means bushes since they grow to around the height of a bungalow's roof. Mechanisation has reduced the labour requirement, but, as the trees need heavy pruning to maximise sunlight on every branch, to that extent there is increased year-round employment.

Giantism has not taken exclusive hold. Bulmers reckons that a farmer putting 10 acres of ground down to production for cider could justify a modern small harvesting machine. Plenty of farmers are coming forward with between 15 and 50 acres of ground. This year, 16 farmers are committing themselves to planting 300 acres of smallish trees between them. More romantically, Bulmers' nurseries are having to increase output of standard trees: they shift at least 1,000 a year to farmers and other landowners who want to replace decaying trees in old orchards, or plant a few to make new, tiny parcels of orchard. The firm sees a market for maybe 3,000 standard trees a year.

Apple producers are on a knife-edge with chemical use. Too much and the useful predator insects are destroyed along with everything else; too little and there are big crop losses to compound a vicious and more or less inevitable two-year cycle of high and low yields. Bulmers swears it is learning new techniques to reduce chemical use, and to make it more benign. I pretty well believe it. I accept the company has little choice, especially since I spent time with an organic grower who told me his apples cost about twice as much as commercially grown ones.

'Shouldn't orchards be wild-flower paradises?' I asked my Bulmers hosts as we tramped some of the company's 2,000 acres. Unfortunately not: flowers would attract bees at just the time sprays must be used, and that would blight the honey-makers. Even the grass in orchards needs to be fairly boring: it has to make a tight sward which can handle the passage of tractor tyres.

But the people at Bulmers are not philistines. They don't make an enormous song and dance about the amount of their land that is pond, bog and woodland. It is there, though, and locals know they can walk it at any time.

I have decided that it is pointless being snooty about the arrival of new-look orchards. It occurs to me that rows of highly trained small trees ought to remind modern English travellers of a scene they much admire, provided it is abroad. Hereford has simply developed its own muscular, blossom-laden equivalent of the French vineyard.

However, while the French are abandoning their grape- growing in droves, our own recession-proof drink of the masses is refreshing this bit of the country in new ways. I say this even as I am saddened by the arrival this weekend of JCBs in one of the few remaining scraps of old orchard in the heart of the village.