Grower Profile: Dingle Farm
20th June 2023
Dingle Farm grows around 60 different varieties of cherries, apricots and plums in Worcestershire, including a number of trial varieties – with its key aims being to increase yields and fruit size, and to find later varieties. Deputy editor Sarah Kidby spoke to farm manager Matt Foster to find out more.
- Grower: Dingle Farm
- Location: Little Witley, Worcestershire
- Farm size: 15ha
- Soil type: Light sandy loam
- Fruit grown: Around 60 varieties in total (including trial varieties). 8ha of cherries, 2ha of apricots, 5ha of plums
An introduction to Dingle Farm
Previously used for growing apples and pears, then asparagus in the 1970s–1990s, Dingle Farm remained fallow for a few years before being put to its current purpose as a producer of cherries, apricots and plums. It was a natural choice for the farm’s manager Matt Foster, who had been working in importing and managing the supply of cherries to UK supermarkets, before deciding to rent the land at Little Witley 13 years ago. Having studied agriculture at Hadlow College when it had an on-site fruit farm, and with experience working in importing and marketing fruits and vegetables, Matt says he always found it most rewarding to work in the fruit sector.
Today, the farm grows around 60 different varieties, including trial varieties, which are selected first and foremost to provide the longest season, then pollination, then a mix of self-fertile (self-pollinating) and self-sterile varieties.
The sandy loam at the Worcestershire site is somewhat nutrient-barren, but the free-draining aspect is ideal for soil health, explains Matt. “We fertigate little and often and spray once a week in season with seaweed solutions as a foliar application, and this provides the best results for crop health.”
Agrii provides Dingle Farm with technical advice and products including Actiff, which is a seaweed-based bio-stimulant. Containing a range of micronutrients, amino acids, humic and fulvic acids, it aims to maximise plant growth and enhance uptake of water, fertiliser and micro-nutrients from the soil.
The farm’s soil type is also valuable when it comes to encouraging bee populations as it allows them to nest in large populations. Dingle Farm works with a local apiarist and strives to manage habitats on the farm to encourage wild bee populations.
As part of the farm’s bid to balance crop yield with good fruit size and firmness, they also use self-ventilating Voen covers from Germany. “They are best for high quality production and venting the volume of evapotranspiration from the orchards,” Matt continues.
Spotted wing drosophila (SWD) is the farm’s main pest and Matt says they have found mass-trapping the vinegar fly both post-harvest and pre-harvest in spring is the best way to keep the population under control. A deterrent spray of garlic formula is then used as a push control. From early May they spray once a week, while herbicide management is usually done once in the spring followed by knapsack treatments where necessary.
Matt and his wife Gritt began a trial of soluble bio-stimulant ProAct last year, again supplied by Agrii to manage frost. While they didn’t have any frost incidents, Matt says they noticed a “marked increase in the size and firmness of the treated crop”, compared to the varieties that were left untreated. ProAct foliar spray, from Plant Health Care, contains 1% Harpin αβ protein and offers a natural method of improving tolerance to abiotic stresses including frost, as well as final fruit quality. The product works by isolating harpin proteins from plant pathogenic bacteria. Harpin αβ contains four active domains found in harpin proteins produced by plant pathogenic bacteria. When Harpin αβ is applied to plants the proteins trigger defence and growth responses. Plants which have been primed by Harpin αβ protein then respond faster and more intensely to real stress events, according to Agrii.
This year, Dingle Farm will use ProAct on all cherries, as well as on the plums and greengages.
At the other extreme, the very high temperatures across the UK last summer did not affect yields too badly, however, as SWD does not cope well in severe temperatures and the Voen covers are self-ventilating which helped to protect the crop. In fact, they saw yields increase compared to the previous year, Matt says. “While we had outside temperatures of up to 40ºC, it was actually on average 34ºC. This was a marked difference to the polytunnels, where the internal temperatures were higher.”
Regular monitoring is a key year-round task for the farm to stay ahead of problems, including pests and diseases, as well as the timing of flowering to cropping times, which varies each year for each variety, and Matt says they are constantly checking the fruiting progress in season.
Meanwhile, as the fruit and wider agricultural sector continues to face severe labour challenges, Dingle Farm has been using local labour – mainly from college students – since the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Whilst they do require more management, it also allows greater flexibility and the farm’s work requirements fall in July and August, coinciding with students’ summer breaks, Matt says. They have a 50% returnee rate for their local pickers. As stone fruit does not store well, the farm markets its fruit prior to harvest, then harvests Monday to Friday, nine hours per day. Dingle Farm works with marketing organisations that work 12 months of the year, preferring those with UK programmes only.
Matt and Gritt are the farm’s only permanent staff 12 months of the year, which increases to five staff when they start putting the Voen covers on and a maximum of 30 during harvest.
Another challenge is that as the farm is quite intensive in its planting, it uses narrow tractors which are not always easy to find, Matt adds.
The farm is working with a range of breeders to carry out extensive trial work on new varieties of cherries and plums. They are looking to extend the season and improve yields and fruit sizes. “The traits we’re looking for are a brix of at least 18%, firmness for shelf life, regular good yield and size of fruit, which, to be attractive to the market must be 26mm+,” Matt says. “We are always looking to extend the season as we are in a mid-to-late area of production, so we are primarily interested in finding later varieties to suit our climate.”