Jon Clements of the University of Massachusetts, left, admires trees at the Hatton Fruit Gardens in East Malling, which is named after Ronald Hatton, originator of the Malling apple rootstocks. Trees in the garden have been trained and pruned to 25 different configurations including cordons, espaliers, goblets, pyramids, fans, arches, and crowns. This espalier is composed of two apple trees on M.106.
Fruit growers around the world have benefited greatly from the rootstock research conducted at East Malling in the United Kingdom.
Forty members of the International Fruit Tree Association visited the revered East Malling Research Center in Kent, England, this summer, where Sir Ronald Hatton collected, catalogued, tested, and named the Malling apple rootstocks that have been widely used around the world.
The dwarfing Malling 9 rootstock, released almost a century ago, has enabled growers to plant intensive orchards and is the most prevalent apple rootstock today. Research continues there with the goal of developing fruit varieties and rootstocks to help growers meet today’s challenges.
“It’s almost like coming to Mecca for us,” commented Dr. Terence Robinson, horticulturist with Cornell University, New York.
But William Sibley, chair of the East Malling Trust for Horticultural Research, says East Malling owes a lot to the United States. During the late nineteenth century, following numerous wars in Europe, the United Kingdom was in a poor state economically. Incomes were low, particularly for farmers, and a large number left their farms to go to the Americas. There, they found large-scale, organized fruit growing, which they had never seen in the United Kingdom. Until that time, most U.K. fruit was grown in backyards, and there was no transport system to take the fruit to market. Orchards were typically only an acre or two.
Some people went back to the United Kingdom to set up commercial fruit-growing operations. But as they did so, they faced many horticultural questions that needed to be answered, Viruses caused havoc, and yields were low. For Cox’s Orange Pippin, yields of five bins per acre or less were common, Sibley said during the IFTA tour.
The East Malling and Wye Fruit Experiment Station was built in 1913 as a satellite station of Wye College in Kent. It consisted of a laboratory, office, and stable for the sole scientist, Captain R. Wellington, and his horse, and was funded by subscriptions from farmers. When he left to serve in the First World War in 1914, Dr. Ronald Hatton took over the task of acquiring and cataloguing the many apple rootstocks found around Europe, and named them after the Malling station.
East Malling became independent of Wye College in 1920, and an endowment fund was created to help fund the center. The fund later became the East Malling Trust for Horticultural Research.
“That trust was created by the most foresighted and forward-thinking growers we have ever seen,” Sibley said. “We owe them a huge debt.”
Over the years, the land and buildings were expanded. In 1938, the trust purchased Bradbourne House with 200 acres of land from the Twisden family who had lived there for over 400 years. The trust provided East Malling with physical resources while the government paid the scientists to do the work. By the 1950s, East Malling had more than 500 acres of land.
During the 1970s and 1980s, East Malling was a fully government-sponsored facility with strong ties to the fruit industry. As many as 500 growers would attend open days, Sibley recalled.
But in 1990, East Malling was brought together with all the other U.K. horticultural research stations under the newly formed private organization Horticulture Research International.
In some respects this was the beginning of the end for a stable horticulture research base in the U.K., as smaller facilities were stripped of their assets, Sibley said. “It was a difficult time, without doubt.”
In the early 2000s, a decision was made to break up HRI and phase out all government support. Because East Malling had the support of the East Malling Trust, it was able to survive.
Two years ago, the trust changed its structure and now owns everything, Sibley said. It is the umbrella for three companies: East Malling Research, which carries on the fruit research; East Malling Limited, which handles all the commercial activities, such as fruit growing, operating the conference center, farming, and managing the property; and Bradbourne House Limited, which rents out the house for weddings and other occasions.
All of the income comes back to the trust, which provides all the profits to East Malling for research. “We’re here for only one thing, and that’s to support research into horticulture,” Sibley said.
Dr. Peter Gregory, chief executive officer of East Malling Research, said the research center has 40 staff and students today, down from 400 in the 1980s, and is in a state of flux. It is a charity, not a government organization, whose role is to do strategic and applied research and deliver knowledge, products, and services to its customers. These include the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Horticultural Development Company (which collects levies from growers), as well as private companies.
The East Malling Trust provides about 25 percent of EMR’s funding; about a third of the funding is generated by projects sponsored by the DEFRA; and about 25 percent comes from growers and packers.
Increasingly, East Malling will do collaborative research, Gregory said, and it has formed partnerships with a number of other research entities in the United Kingdom and China.
There’s an emphasis on boosting U.K. food production, because of concerns about the country’s current dependence on imported foods, and on sustainable production methods that make efficient use of inputs and reduce waste. Scientists are also looking at ways to improve shelf life and address the impacts of climate change.
Genomics, genetics, and breeding remain core research areas. The center has a cherry breeding program, in partnership with a marketing company that will provide the route to market. It also has a small rootstock breeding program. Felicidad Fernández Fernández, plant breeder and molecular biologist, is working to develop rootstocks with better water use efficiency.
“It’s my strong desire that we get back into rootstocks in a big way,” Gregory said. “It’s my belief that with the new information coming through from genomics and genetics, we ought to be able to come up with a really good modern rootstock program here.”