Oliver Doubleday tosses a Gala apple in the air as he explains that U.K. supermarkets don’t want large fruit.
Dr. Oliver Doubleday, chair of East Malling Research for the past five years, has agricultural interests around the world, including a 4,500-acre estate in Kent, England.
Doubleday was a research biologist before joining the family business, G.H. Dean and Company in Sittingbourne, Kent, 30 years ago. The company has 3,000 acres of arable land and pasture and several hundred acres of apples, pears, and cherries. Doubleday has a strong interest in horticultural research and enjoys bringing new ideas to bear on his farm.
Last spring, he planted a 15-acre Conference pear block on a twin-leader system with the aim of harvesting double the yields of the estate’s older pear orchards, which he describes as “middling or indifferent.”
A tour group from the International Fruit Tree Association visited the planting during the summer. The trees are on Quince C rootstocks and planted 1.2 meters (4 feet) apart with 3.8 meters (12 feet) between rows.
“The rows are further apart than they need to be with this system, but we’re used to 3.8 meters, and we have lots of land,” Doubleday said, chuckling. “I’m sorry, but we have. Everywhere you look, actually.”
England experienced an unusually hot spring in 2011, and the trees didn’t get off to a good start because irrigation water wasn’t immediately available. And, though he ordered the trees from a Belgian nursery, they came from Italy. Doubleday recalled an old saying that trees transferred from north to south do well, but trees moved from south to north don’t.
“That might be the reason they’ve had a ‘We’re thinking about it’ year,” he said. “But we’ll feed them and get them moving.”
Still, he’s optimistic that such new plantings will yield 50 bins per acre when mature.
Doubleday is also expanding his cherry acreage. He recalls working at the family cherry orchard when he was young, when English fruit growers didn’t face competition from abroad and could profitably raise quaint varieties such as Bradbourne Black, a good-tasting cherry that he can no longer sell. Over the years, his company’s cherry orchards have been designed to maximize production from early to late season.
He has Regina, Penny, Lapins, Van, Hertford, Colney, Merchant, Skeena, Sweetheart, and numbered selections from around the world. He finds cherries developed in eastern Europe more adapted to the English climate than the British Columbia varieties, though he likes the self-fertility of the Canadian ones. He’s found Karina, Kordia, Korvic, and Sylvia to be good pollenizers for Regina, one of his preferred varieties. He uses Gisela 5 rootstocks for most varieties and G.6 for the weaker ones.
He’s made a strategic decision to invest significantly in cherries but recognizes the drawbacks of growing too many varieties. He will probably plant another 100 to 120 acres over the next few years, in good-sized blocks with as few varieties as possible. Trees will be 6 feet apart with 12 feet between rows.
“The traditional approach, where you muddle the varieties all together, doesn’t work,” he declared, noting the difficulties of managing a heterogeneous block where the trees aren’t synchronized during the growing season and need spraying at different times.
“You compromise on the timing of the operation,” he said. “I want a very small number of varieties in the orchard, but I want to get the right ones—I want to back the big winners. As long as I can get the pollination right, I want to have an eight-hectare (20-acre) block that’s 60 percent Regina, or whatever. By having a much more intelligent approach to the orchard design, we ought to be able to optimize our timing of application of things like fungicides.”
Doubleday’s grandfather, whom he describes as “an innovative and successful farmer,” built a cold storage facility in the 1930s and applied research that had been done at East Malling on modified-atmosphere cold storage. The facility was rebuilt in the 1970s and new refrigeration equipment installed five years ago.
Doubleday is using the facility to experiment with short- and medium-term storage techniques for cherries. The goal is to be able to hold fruit for some time after harvest to ensure an uninterrupted supply for the buyer.
“At the moment, we’re under considerable pressure from supermarkets to invest in rain covers to guarantee their supply,” he explained. “Those cover systems are very expensive. I believe an alternative strategy is to concentrate on growing a smaller number of cherry varieties that are rain resistant and use good storage technology to give me a guarantee of being able to supply to the supermarkets as per their demands.”
His new Royal Gala apple plantings are on Malling 9 rootstocks and planted 3 feet apart with the standard 12.5 feet between rows. Trees are supported by individual posts and a wire trellis. Two wires in the lower part of the tree are positioned side by side to create a “table” for the canopy. The upper part of the tree consists of short spurs that don’t create too much shade.
The trees are only lightly thinned as Doubleday aims to grow fairly small fruit—about 65 mm (just over 2.5 inches in diameter) because supermarkets sell most of the apples in polybags. If the apples are too large, the grower ends up giving away too much fruit weight.
Braeburn is a marginal variety for him, as it tends to produce apples that are too large and it doesn’t color easily. It ripens in mid- to late October.
On all his orchards, he applies a composted municipal waste. Doubleday said the composting process eliminates pathogens, but doesn’t result in the best product for tree growth. He treats the compost with a small amount of molasses, seaweed extract, and urea to convert it into a better soil amendment.
Doubleday has served on numerous boards relating to agriculture and research, including the Brogdale Horticultural Trust. Brogdale Farm at Faversham, Kent, is home of the National Fruit Collection, one of the largest fruit collections in the world.
His wife’s family farms in Brazil, and he has been involved in planting and managing a rubber farm there. He also has agricultural investments in the United States and New Zealand.