High Weald

fruitfarmersName: Oakwood Farm
Robertsbridge,East Sussex
01580 830893
01580 830201

Our Farm
In 1947-48, fruit grower Raymond Wickham OBE, planted 50 of 140 acres at the farm (then named Poppinghole) with 'top' fruit orchards - apples, pears, plums and cherries - adding to an already existing 20 acres of apples and pears. In 1951, Matthew's grandfather bought Poppinghole and installed Matthew's father as farm manager. From 1953, when Matthew was born, his father became the owner and re-named it Oakwood Farm

My family had a dairy farm at Sedlescombe and we both went to school nearby. Matthew did an Agricultural Botany degree, while I studied Geography and then trained as a secretary. We married in 1981.

Organic conversion
In 1997, unusually harsh frosts destroyed two-thirds of our budding apple crop. In a desperate bid to avoid future financial ruin, we decided to convert our business to one of only a few, small, licensed organic orchards in the AONB. Almost as an afterthought, we also began to produce, market and sell our own bottles of juice.

Going into organic conversion can be the worst of both worlds. Ending the use of man-made chemicals leads to a short-term increase in pests and disease, and so fewer saleable apples. Those that can be sold fetch a lower price because they are neither blemish-free nor of organic standard. To avoid thousands of apples going to waste, we bought a juice-pressing machine, re-wired a farm shed to accommodate it, and got environmental health approval to produce juice on the premises.

We had thousands of litres of juice to sell. Fortunately, despite our relative inexperience in marketing and selling, we persuaded around 30 of our existing apple outlets to take juice too, and some new juice outlets to take apples. Oakwood finally achieved its full organic status on 1 September 1999.

Oakwood's selling 'territory' now stretches from Robertsbridge, west between the A27 and A272, as far as Southampton. This includes Brighton and some outlets in London. Our main customers are organic shops and box schemes, National Trust properties in East Sussex and Kent which have a 'buy local and organic' policy, many local village stores, and a few catering establishments. We now have around 90 juice outlets, with another 20 for apples only.

Environmental benefits of organic farming
Organic production means sustaining a natural, diverse and healthy balance between the crop the farmer introduces, and the surrounding ecosystem of good soil and beneficial wildlife - such as plants, insects, mammals and birds - that controls fruit pests. We only use naturally-occurring substances approved by the Soil Association: absolutely no broad-spectrum pesticides or insecticides.

Among the impressive diversity of wildlife species we see at Oakwood Farm are: mammals such as deer, Badger, Fox, Rabbit and Hedgehog; birds such as warblers, Nightingale, Bullfinch, Skylark, Swallow, Song Thrush, woodpeckers, owls and Sparrowhawks; insects like bees, dragonflies and butterflies; and flowers too numerous to mention.

Our products
We grow Cox, Egremont Russet, Gala, Fiesta, Ida Red, Jonagored, Spartan, Falstaff and Adams Pearmain apple varieties. From January to March, we prune 12,000 apple trees and manure the orchard soil; and we begin to spray the trees, every two weeks through to July, with a feed derived from seaweed, and with sulphur to protect the leaves. We mow the grass under the trees while the apples are growing between April and August.

For two to three weeks in September, a team of casual pickers harvests the apples into 660lb wooden crates called bulk bins. The apples are put into a cold store at three to four degrees Celsius, then graded into fresh dessert 'eaters' in 30lb boxes with minimum packaging, and those for juicing.

Apples are tipped into a mill - a cylinder drum on the press - where blunt, rotating arms crush them into pulp. This is pressed through layers of wooden boards and special, loosely woven cloths, and the juice pumped into a 100-gallon holding tank. From there, it is gradually released through a 'flash pasteuriser' which instantaneously heats it to 75 degrees Celsius, before it is piped into bottles for immediate labelling and storage, on their sides, in the bulk bins that originally contained the apples.

Oakwood offers limited quantities of Gala, Ida Red, and Adams Pearmain, but mainly produces four different juices:
Russett - traditional, distinctive with sweet rich flavour
Jonagored - vintage flavour from the apple voted tastiest at the 1998 National Fruit Show;
Fiesta - fine and rich with a background tang
Cox blend - mixed with Spartan, a sharp but refreshing taste.