PAUL DUNSBY used to say two women controlled his life: Mother Nature and Margaret Thatcher. At least Mother Nature has been kind in 1994. A long, sunny summer, sandwiched between two lengthy periods of rain, has provided ideal growing conditions for English apples in general and Cox's Orange Pippins in particular.
Mr Dunsby has spent 40 years growing fruit at Cotswold Orchard, near Broadway, in Worcestershire. He knows more than most about the vagaries of the weather and its effect on profits. But where did Baroness Thatcher fit into his scheme of things?
'Well, she did speak up for British products, which was a good thing, but she'd never do anything to control imports.'
In fact, as Mr Dunsby acknowledges, the threat to English apples began some years before her premiership, when we joined what was then known as the Common Market. Another colourful Tory politician gave him some advice at the time. 'Get out of apples,' was the tip from his local MP. Sir Gerald Nabarro predicted that the French were about to flood the market. He was right about that. But Mr Dunsby was determined to prove the MP wrong about his own chances of survival.
Today he has 120 acres and a contract to supply Safeway with as many apples as he can grow. The Cox's Orange Pippin, close to becoming an endangered species, is suddenly in demand again. Too late for many growers, alas. There were 3,000 in the mid-1950s and fewer than 800 are around today.
Most survivors are members of the Kent-based English Apples and Pears Association. Among them they pay around pounds 1.5m a year to promote their products in an extremely competitive market. 'Apples are in over-supply worldwide,' said to Diana Wood, the association's spokeswoman. 'It doesn't help when our members are producing a fantastic product, but in low yields.'
Brussels is set to reduce the million-ton surplus in Europe by introducing a Grubbing Grant. Growers who agree to uproot their orchards and not plant again for 15 years will be able to apply for a sizeable once-and-for-all payoff. The EAPA is hoping there will be many applications from Southern Europe, where annual subsidies have been paid for apples which nobody wants to buy.
There is no shortage of customers for English apples. Growers here are benefiting from demand from a significant section of the buying public, weary of mass-produced food and keen to sample distinctive flavours. 'The demand is there,' said Mr Dunsby. 'We've got to make sure that the price we're getting is economic.'
Last year, when Mother Nature was less than kind, he was selling at cost price. This year's bountiful harvest should ensure him a reasonable profit on the 500 tons he will produce between now and next April. 'Co-operation between the multiples and the growers has never been better,' he said. 'They know what the consumer is prepared to pay and they know what we want. It's not in their interests to put us out of business.'
The price of Cox's in the shops will always be higher than that of the French Golden Delicious. 'They grow like weeds over there,' said Mr Dunsby. 'The French get twice the tonnage per acre we do and they can store them all the year round.'
With the British market being deluged by imports for more than 20 years, the wonder is that any indigenous growers have survived at all. The secret, says Mr Dunsby, is to go for quality rather than quantity, by improving the strain. 'A lot of growers didn't keep up to date and replant their orchards.'
His own trees are short with widely spread branches - easy for pruners and pickers. Around 40 pickers are employed at this time of year. They move slowly between the neat lines of trees which stretch into the middle distance, across the undulating countryside of the Vale of Evesham.
English apples ripening under an English sky: a tribute to Mother Nature and to the foresight of a man who refused to take his MP's advice.
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