- Fruit Plants
- Fruit Trees and Bushes
- Ornamental Trees and Shrubs
- Vegetable Plants
- Apple Trees
- Asparagus Crowns
- Fruit Trees
- Nursery Stock
- Nut Trees
- Ornamental Shrubs
- Ornamental Trees
- Rhubarb Crowns/Plants
- Soft Fruit Trees
TEL: 01329 833588.
Mr Alfred Edward Roberts established a mixed agricultural/horticultural business in 1908 on a 100 acre site at Frith Farm, Wickham, Hampshire. He founded a small dairy, a pig production unit and grew various arable, vegetable and soft fruit crops. He established the yellow-and-green company colours, and for many years only green pens and yellow paper were allowed in the office! A stalwart supporter of the Scouts worldwide, and the local Group in particular, in late April each year at the end of the bare-root packing season surplus trees and bushes were loaded onto a tractor and trailer and sold in the village square to raise money for 1st Wickham Scouts.
Currant and gooseberry bushes were first produced on the farm in response to the lack of good quality stock needed to replenish the fruiting plantations. By the early 1930′s a surplus of young plants was being produced, so a market had to be found. Mr. Roberts approached several local Woolworths stores who found that the bushes were readily snapped up by their customers, admittedly in an area renowned at the time as home to many market gardening smallholders. This developed into a “van sales” round to local High Street stores, energetically promoted after the war by the new nursery manager, Peter Gwynn. From such humble beginnings developed most of the company’s turnover for the next 70 years.
In 1950 the management team decided to incorporate the business and “A. E. Roberts (Fruitgrower and Nurseryman) Limited.” was born. By now the company’s operation was mainly concentrated in soft fruit production for the wholesale markets and the jam and juice industries, and increasingly the sale to Woolworths of packed plants, both home-produced and imported.
The early 1960s saw the appearance in the UK market of large quantities of cheap imported soft fruit, rendering home-produced fruit uneconomic to pick, a situation that has remained largely unchanged until the last 10 years. The company re-focussed its fruit on the emergent Pick Your Own Fruit market and for a few years the response was enormous. Over 60 tons of gooseberries alone were picked each year, alongside strawberries, raspberries, red and black currants in significant quantities. With no proper car parks in the early years many were the days that Frith Lane was lined on both sides for half a mile or more with pickers’ cars up on the verge! Technology advanced and Peter Gwynn’s dulcet tones on the ansaphone with hourly updated news on what was available, the weather and other titbits of local interest, acquired a devoted following of hundreds of callers, for many of whom I am sure the fruit became of almost incidental interest! The nursery side of the business continued to develop with the introduction of a range of grafted fruit trees to strengthen the company’s offer of root-wrapped plants to High Street stores and this was further enhanced by a range of ornamental shrubs, some produced on the nursery but mainly imported from Holland. Revolutions in the printing industry gave us the first photographic illustrations to aid in-store presentation.
The 1970s saw the passing of Mr. A. E. Roberts but his company continued to thrive, in 1980 erecting a new pack shed and importing machines from America to aid the root-wrapping process and boosting the turnover beyond £250k. Fruit production gradually gave way to nursery stock and this trend continued through the 1980s with greater emphasis on trees and ornamentals, less on the traditional soft fruit. As the market became more sophisticated the availability of a wide range of (mainly continental) pot-grown liners in large quantities opened up opportunities to extend the selling season in High Street stores right through the spring.
By the end of the 1980s the company was fast outgrowing its original premises, despite the addition of various extensions and extra machinery, so with the lease up for renewal it was decided to move to a green field site ¾ mile up the road in Shirrell Heath. An adventurous decision in the light of the long challenges ahead from the economy and losing the support of our then bankers …….. but hindsight is a wonderful thing!
A “new” 26,000 sq.ft. pack shed was erected in 1993 with financial help from the NFU (it was originally a “retail shed” that had to be demolished to make way for the new Merthyr Tydfil by-pass), two new packing lines were installed (making a total of six) and several new multiple customers were added to ease the company’s long-standing strategic dependence on Woolworths with whom the turnover had now reached £1¼ million but who like most had had their challenges from time to time, mainly with logistics or markdown.
These challenges led in 1995 to the introduction of “Telesales” and direct to store shipment. Initially this involved a small team of very patient and determined souls spending three days a week ringing up to 750 stores nationwide for individual orders which were then picked, packed and shipped by carrier to arrive by the weekend. Despite our initial misgivings it proved a great success and before long we were phoning on behalf of up to six other suppliers, covering some 150 lines: bulbs, seed potatoes, onions, roses, perennials and other live plants. After two years of coping with a blizzard of paper (hand recording each different supplier’s orders on separate sheets of paper for faxing) computerisation had to be the way to go although on day one in 1997 we were rather non-plussed when the computer displayed the details and phone number for the first store to be contacted – on all five operator’s screens!
October 1996 had seen the collapse of Challis of York (fellow suppliers to Woolworths) and with it came the opportunity to recapture a large chunk of pot-grown late season business. With a lot of stock on the ground and many good people out of work we helped a small team of ex-Challis staff found Millford Plants Ltd, taking on two of the old Challis growing sites (now concentrated onto one) and their stock. Over the next few years an increasingly close working relationship developed, on the back of significant AER investment, culminating in their becoming the “northern trading division” of A. E. Roberts Ltd in 2000. In addition to continued development of the Woolworths business they strengthened the High Street customer base further, developing accounts among others with Morrisons and Asda.
Meanwhile back at home in Hampshire the new building, despite being some 50% larger than the total covered area at Frith Farm, was outgrown in less than three years! So with the whole-hearted support of our new bankers 1997 also saw the erection of a 20,000 sq.ft. pack shed extension, incorporating a 5000m³ coldstore. Turnover hit £3.5m and everything seemed headed in the right direction.
Peter Gwynn finally retired in 1998 after 40 years in the company, just three months short of his 75th birthday, leaving the business in the hands of his two older sons, John and David, who between them by then had also chalked up almost 40 years – definitely a case of evolution not revolution!
From the economic downturn at the end of the ’80s and early ’90s steady growth flowed for the rest of the ’90s leading to significant reductions in unemployment, especially in the South-East. This left the company facing real labour shortages, operating as it did in areas where almost everything, both growing and packing, had to be done by hand. Each packing line needs a crew of 10 – 12 to run smoothly – and we have six of them – so our labour force has to roughly double to over a hundred between Christmas and Easter. We turned to agencies to take up the slack and were rewarded by a pretty mixed group that usually more or less made the number but turnover was high, ability and commitment levels mixed and language increasingly a challenge. More and more doubts also arose about exploitation of staff by the so-called “gang-masters”, so in collaboration with a group of about a dozen like-minded local nurseries we founded SCION in 2003, a not-for-profit organisation to raise employment standards both for the nurseries and the temporary staff. The first three years saw three different labour providers, but things have since settled down. We invested significant amounts in training, including building a group of highly capable “core workers” who move around the member nurseries as and when the critical tasks demand. As the EU expanded eastwards and the SAWS scheme shrank, SCION’s membership expanded into the fruit-growing areas of south-east England to help alleviate the ensuing labour shortages. A “picking school” was set up solely to instil the skills required by this specialised area of UK Horticulture. With the advent of the Gangmaster Licensing Act much of the need for SCION disappeared, it finally closed in 2011, but we still source agency labour to the same high ethical standards from Pro-Force, our SCION partner for most of its existence.
We continue to adapt our products for alternative markets, so many of our trees and bushes are now distributed fresh-potted to outdoor retailing chains, others leave us bare-rooted fresh from the field to go to regional wholesale nurseries for potting and distribution to local Garden Centres, and yet more find their way into direct mail order operations.
Each year our customers demand more innovation, better presentation, better service levels, and unfortunately all too often lower prices and higher rebates. To thrive (or even survive) assets must be made to work harder, ranges and presentations must be continuously developed and every member of our organisation must work smarter and more productively.
The other major challenge faced by the company especially over the last 10 years has been climatic. The increasing unpredictability of our weather has caused huge problems in both production and selling. Prolonged wet or cold weather in spring and summer such as we have experienced in 2012 and 2013 keep customers out of plant sales areas. Wet winters prevent us from planting the next crop of rootstocks at the ideal time, dry springs then impede establishment. Every year seems to bring further extreme weather events forcing us to radically change the ways we have traditionally worked in order to produce even part of a crop. But our products continue to be in great demand by customers around the country, and faced with our current economic and environmental challenges is it any wonder? Long live local production and “Grow Your Own”!
They tell me the Chinese have but one word meaning both “Crisis” and “Opportunity”. I think I am beginning to understand why!