LOCAL Bramley apple growers are shaken to the core with one of the worst seasons in living memory - in the same year that the fruit was given special EU elite status, alongside products like Parma ham and French champagne.
The elite status was granted in March, and ever since then, according to apple grower Hammy Loney, chairman of the NI Fruit Growers Association, the weather has mitigated against this year’s crop. He estimates that the crop this year is 50 per cent down on the norm, “and many of those are unsuitable for supermarket sales and will have to go to the processing trade, for juice and cider”.
Mr Loney has a 20-acre orchard near Richhill, and related a litany of bad weather months throughout the season that has blighted the crop. It started, ironically, with hot, unseasonable weather in March which made the trees bud early, but that was negated with a poor run of weather in April and May which killed the early blossom.
“But trees are resilient and they burst out into a second bloom,” said Hammy. “But the second bloom is never the same, and with the weather affecting the bees, that compounded the situation further.” More wet weather meant the reduced crop, with scab making things worse.
“Only half the reduced crop is suitable for the fresh market,” said Hammy. “Those are the apples that are sold from shops and supermarkets. The rest of the crop will go to bakeries, juice and cider - there are five or six juice and cider outlets here in County Armagh.”
Ironically, last year’s crop was a bumper one, with an almost record 70,000 tonnes, and this year’s is down to one of the worst in living memory. And while the ‘fresh’ market will be worst affected, the cider and juice market won’t be so badly hit.
Philip Troughton of the prestigious Armagh Cider Company has a 90-acre orchard and is self-sufficient in proving apples for the business at Ballinteggart. “We don’t have to produce for the fresh market, and apples that don’t look the part, but which are suitable for pressing, are available to the extent that I’ll be able to see things through this year. We have produce cider the year round and we have enough in stock to keep full production.”
But with the cider being more and more popular - and with interest growing from the Republic - Mr Troughton may have to buy apples into the business in future. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. “The bottom line is that this has been a poor season for the Bramley growers, but we have to face each season as it comes. All the growers are hoping for better times to come, and there’s no option but to keep going.”
It’s sad that the situation has arisen in the first season after that status was granted - a move that was welcomed by Hammy Loney’s predecessor as chairman of the NI Fruit Growers Association, John Beggs, who has an orchard near Loughgall.
At the time, he said, “We have waited a long time for this, but at last we have recognition that the Armagh Bramley has a special taste and composition, “The Bramley joins the Comber potatoes and Lough Neagh eels which already enjoy protected geographical indication status.”