Producer of the Month: Ben Bardsley - Apples and Pears
This month we take a look at Ben Bardsley of Bardsley farms who produce apples and pears for our official sponsor the Co-op.
Product: Apples and pears
Not many men can say they’ve gone from the front line to farming. But Ben Bardsley isn’t any ordinary apple grower. A fifth generation farmer, Ben grows delicious British apples and pears for Co-op on the family farm near Maidstone in Kent. But just five years ago, he was in the army, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. He joined the family’s fruit business after suffering a life-threatening injury.
‘I’d grown up helping out on the farm and always knew I’d work there one day,’ Ben says. ‘But Dad told me to go out and get some experience of life first. Working on a farm can be a bit isolated, and I needed to get out there and learn some skills I could bring back with me. So I planned to come back in five or 10 years.’
Fighting to survive
After studying business and marketing at Newcastle University, Ben started, then sold his student lettings business before heading to Sandhurst to join the Welsh Guards. But, four years on, he suffered an injury that changed his life.
‘I was on patrol with my regiment in Helmand, when we got into a firefight with the Taliban,’ Ben, 31, says. ‘A bullet went into my chest and out through my back. ‘Lying there, I thought my time was up. But thanks to the incredible care I got from my team, I was in hospital within 40 minutes. ‘Within 24 hours, I was flown to intensive care at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where I stayed for nine days.’ Thanks to his fitness levels, Ben made a quick recovery, and was back at work just seven months later. In June 2013, he left the army to join his parents on Bardsley Farms. ‘After I was injured it felt like the right time,’ he says. ‘It was exactly 10 years since I’d left, and the farm was where I wanted to be.’
Today, the farm supplies Co-op with Braeburn apples all year round and fresh Gala, Bramley and Cox apples when in season. They’re using the expertise passed down through generations since Ben’s great, great grandfather Fred Gibson bought the farm in 1892.
Back then, it sat on just 70 acres of land, which has since grown to 530 acres of orchards. Ben hopes to pass it on to his own children one day. But right now, he’s proud to be a Co-op supplier. ‘Co-op are really big on British produce and have a young, dynamic team in place – one that looks to the future,’ he says. ‘We’re so pleased to be working with them.’
‘Co-op are really big on British produce and have a young, dynamic team in place – one that looks to the future’
The real secret to a delicious apple, Ben says, is in the growing. ‘The best apple is crunchy and sweet, and to grow one like that you need the right conditions. Kent is known as the Garden of England and here we have south-facing slopes, plenty of light hours and great soil.’ Across 92 orchards, the Bardsleys’ trees are planted in spring, then pruned, fed and watered for three years before they produce their first crops. Harvesting happens between September and November when the fruit is hand-picked using specially designed padded buckets that prevent bruising. Next, the apples are packed and sent out to the shops, or kept in temperature-controlled sheds until they’re ready to be transported.
Old meets new
With 100 years of history under its belt, the farm uses a combination of traditional methods and cutting-edge technology to make sure its fruit is the very best. ‘We keep the grass long, and have beetle banks and beehives in our orchards to aid pollination,’ Ben says. ‘It encourages natural predators and helps us cut down on pesticides. We also have solar panels, which reduces our carbon footprint.’
Every single dessert apple is checked by a camera that detects size, weight, quality and colour, to make sure they’re the best. ‘Any that don’t quite make the grade are used to make our own apple juice,’ Ben says. So how does he like to eat his apples? ‘With cheese – maybe some Co-op Irresistible Cheddar,’ he smiles. ‘Nothing beats a really good apple.’