On a sloping hill just south of Dartmoor, boughs are laden with brightly coloured Devon crimson, pig’s snout, tale sweet and slack-ma-girdle. Gabriel David wanders through his five-acre orchard and acknowledges this exceptional yield of heritage cider apples: “It should be an absolutely vintage year,” he says.
“After such amazing sunny weather in lockdown, the apple blossom was perfect. The bees were everywhere: it was a stunning spring. Then it rained at just the right time so our cider apples are bigger, with a higher sugar content, resulting in a greater complexity of flavours.”
But, thanks to the pandemic, many apples will be left to rot on the ground because demand for cider and luxury juices has fallen dramatically.
David, who is the founder of Devon-based Luscombe Drinks, one of the UK’s only organic cider producers, said: “We’d normally supply small chains of cinemas, theatres, pubs, hotels and restaurants. But, with coronavirus, so many venues just aren’t open.”
The problem is compounded by a backlog following a slump in sales during lockdown, says David, who relied on the hospitality trade for 80% of sales until early 2020. “That’s where a lot of the wastage is: we’re still selling last year’s cider, and the cider we’re producing now won’t sell until February,so we need to produce less. Plus the market still has a lower demand. It’s a challenge.”
David normally processes 400 tonnes of apples every year. A quarter of that goes into bottled cider and the rest is pressed into organic apple juice, but that figure will be halved this autumn. He also usually buys apples from half a dozen local farmers: “I’ve been talking to our growers every other day but they’re not picking any apples until they’ve got a firm order from us – and when they do, I’ll need them to select only the best quality, because I have fewer people at work this year to grade the fruit.”
According to the National Association of Cider Makers, between 170,000 and 200,000 tonnes of cider apples are grown each year in the UK, and 1.4bn pints of cider are produced, but the crop varies depending on weather conditions. Flooding in Somerset and Herefordshire caused tree failure while sunnier weather further south resulted in a bumper crop.
Many cider apples are also biennial, producing a good crop only every other year, so fluctuations are expected, and there are several reasons why fruit would be wasted: “If apples are too small they’re not worth picking, we might not get enough pickers to do a full harvest, or a hard frost might split apples open,” says David.
With 150 acres of orchards on five sites across Devon and Somerset, apple grower John Milton at Orchard Farm in nearby Crediton supplies four cider companies in the region. He’ll produce 1,800 tonnes of apples this year but won’t sell his full crop. “It’s been a struggle. Back in June, I thought we’d only sell a third but we’ve sold 70% of our crop thanks to the cider mills, who’ve worked fantastically hard to sell what they’re producing. With sports venues closed and pubs trading less, there’s a huge knock-on effect on farming, so we need consumers to support smaller craft-cider makers.”
With the harvest beginning this week, Milton is still trying to decide what to do with the apples he can’t sell. “We’ll probably pick a percentage from everywhere so there’s not as much left on the floor, then we can blow them out from under the trees and let them rot in the avenues. It’s expensive to shift [the apples] so the options are pretty limited. We’re wasting 30-40% of our crop.”
Milton fears this industry will be slow to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic: “The cider companies are pressing every apple they can fit in but obviously with a lot of the vats still full they’re going to be overflowing again after this harvest. It will take at least three years or so to get back on track after this year.”
Back in David’s orchard, blue and green nets are laid out beneath the apple trees ready to catch the fruit when it falls. There’s no capacity for excess so only trees with the best apples will be chosen, and any windfall will be left to rot, adding nutrients to the soil. David says: “Waste is always sad but this is different because it’s a perfect harvest.” Yet he remains optimistic: “We’ve adapted quickly and started selling online direct to consumers for the first time in June – they say never waste a good crisis.”