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Made to measure – Thatchers new bespoke harvester cares for the apples

The ongoing desire to protect the quality of fruit during harvest has led to Thatchers Cider unveiling a new straddle harvester, the first of its kind to be developed.

thatchers cider harvester

John Thatcher (bottom left) with Liz Copas (bottom right).
Top to bottom: Tony Franklin, Thatchers (top right); Len Mathieson, divisional manager, SFM Technology; Keith Tridgell; John Worle.

The modular machine, which as well as picking the fruit, will also spray and shape the trees, has been designed and manufactured by SFM Technology of Martock. The harvester is the brainchild of Thatchers Chairman, John Thatcher, borne out of a passion for orcharding, and a determination to supply the cidermakers who craft the cider that bears his name, with only the highest quality fruit.

“The new machine operates on a multi-pass, shake and catch system,” he explains.

“It will gently shake the trees to remove the ripe fruit, which then pass into the internal tunnel (made from stainless steel so it remains totally clean and rust free), onto an internal conveyor belt in the harvester, then moving the apples into a trailer. From there, they are taken straight to our mill, at no time do the apples touch the ground and handling is kept to a minimum.

“By harvesting ten days before the optimum pick date, on the pick date, as well as ten days after, we are catching all the fruit as it is ready.

“The days of picking apples by hand commercially are over. Shake and catch is the way forward. We tried using a commercially available machine some years ago, but it didn’t do the job in the way we wanted, so that inspired us to come up with our own design.

“I turned to SFM Technology back in 2004 – I knew what I wanted the machine to achieve, but needed some advanced engineering design to turn my dream into reality. SFM are specialist in producing bespoke agriculture machinery – as well as working with some advanced engineering companies such as GKN Aerospace and AgustaWestland – so I had confidence that they would be able to take this project in the right direction.

“It was important that the machine would minimise any environmental impacts, which is not only a passion of my own, but fundamental to the way we run the company.

“And above all else, the mechanised process needed to keep the fruit in the best possible condition by minimising the handling of the fruit. We put as much care into the orcharding process as we do into crafting our cider – the one leads to the other. You can’t make a good cider without good fruit.”

Hence the straddle harvester was developed, and became a tri-modular machine, that has a function for shaping the trees (with cutters at the front, their form mimicking the shape of the tunnel within the harvester. The machine moves over the top of the trees shaping them in readiness for harvesting); as well as a tunnel sprayer.

“The tunnel sprayer has an important environmental aspect to it,” continues John. “Being enclosed it minimises spray drift, and recirculates and catches all the drifted spray. With some air assistance, the spray is blown directly onto the trees. It’s far more efficient that previous models.”

The project was taken on originally by Keith Tridgell, the now retired owner of SFM Technology. He says,

“The brief for the harvester required highly conceptual thinking for the unique requirements we were asking it to perform. There were two big challenges – firstly the height required to straddle the trees and the need to keep the ground pressure to a minimum; and secondly creating a compact power unit that would accommodate all three modular uses.

“Our team of designers, led by Peter Cole, have done a superb job in helping bring John’s vision to fruition.”

Len Mathieson, divisional manager for SFM adds, “This is a bespoke machine which has been produced to help meet John Thatcher’s very clear strategy to deliver the very highest quality apples. Now patented, we believe this machine has export potential.”

SFM has recently been awarded the Royal Warrant for supplying the fruit farm at the Royal Sandringham Estate in Norfolk with innovative horticultural machinery designed to assist with the year-round efficient horticultural management of the estate’s fruit farm.

Fundamental to the effectiveness of the new straddle harvester is the planting of the orchards themselves. And it is this aspect of the project that has been John Thatcher’s passion for a number of years. John has been radically rethinking the way he plants his orchards, in order to maximise the effectiveness of the harvester. Thus, over recent years, he has developed the method of close, hedgerow planting for his trees.

“The French have been growing apple trees in a similar way for years,” observes John, who has often taken inspiration from overseas growers. “The trees eventually form a hedgerow around 9ft high – in effect a wall of trees – and when pruned effectively offer maximum sunlight to the fruit, and maximum efficiency for careful harvesting.

“We now have around 200 acres under this new planting system, using our newer apples varieties such as Gilly, Angela, Lizzie and Prince William, as well as firm favourites such as Dabinett, Tremlett’s Bitter and Somerset Redstreak.”

Pomologist Liz Copas was on hand to see the new straddle harvester make its debut at Thatchers orchards at Shiplate. “This is an impressive machine and a very timely and interesting project. By introducing this machine, John Thatcher is truly progressing the cider industry.”

John Worle, specialist grower of cider apple trees commented, “This project has been seen through by John Thatcher and he’s done it all with a smile on his face. The cider industry hasn’t seen such development in harvesting since the 1970s.”

John Thatcher concludes, “For me, this project is about producing the best quality apples that allow us to craft the highest quality cider. So to produce this premium machine, we needed the expertise of some of the country’s most talented engineers, and I’m extremely grateful for their continued dedication to the project. This is a hugely exciting time – the arrival of the harvester, which has been developed here in Somerset, is the culmination of many years’ hard work.”

Thatchers has been crafting its cider at Myrtle Farm in Somerset over four generations. Today the company produces a range of bottled and draught ciders, including Thatchers Gold, Thatchers Vintage, Katy and Thatchers Rosé, maintaining its desire to produce innovative Somerset ciders, and taking pride in the development of a sustainable company for future generations of the Thatcher family.


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