I have had the good fortune to know Robert and his elder brother Ian for many years.
As partners in the family farm; The Robert Mitchell Partnership, named after their Grandfather, and developed by his son Robert, (Ian & Robert's father) a highly respected top fruit grower who created a small empire based very much on Bramley apples and Conference pears, Ian and Robert continued the family tradition and both have achieved great success as growers, and in prominent (unpaid) roles supporting industry initiatives, for the benefit of their fellow fruit growers.
In 2010, Ian retired and withdrew from top fruit growing, while Robert decided to start again with his share of the farm and assets. The new business; "Robert Mitchell Farms" became a joint venture between Robert and his wife Helen.
Robert Mitchell MBE.
When discussing his life to date; Robert comments; "I guess I have lived my life 'back to front' by comparison to others" 'he is after all only 53 years of age' but has achieved so much outside of his involvement in the family business. While most people who achieve distinction beyond the confines of their everyday life do so once they have fully established their mark on their primary business.............
...........Robert has indeed done things 'back to front'
When their father Robert Johnstone William Mitchell (RJW) passed away, Ian & Robert continued as The Robert Mitchell Partnership.
Robert was educated at Tonbridge School and later at Wye College, leaving in 1980 with a BSc (Hons) degree in Agriculture. In his 'practical year' he worked for Richard Wooldridge at Yotes Court Farm in Mereworth.
After college, Robert travelled to New Zealand where he worked on dairy and nectarine farms. He also worked for Johnny Appleseed Fruit Packers, where his experiences as a young overseas worker gave him a valuable insight into the day to day life of young people aspiring to learn languages, and cultural differences while earning their keep by working on fruit farms. This gave Robert an invaluable source of knowledge which he put to very good use in his later career with Concordia.
As a young man, Robert carried out all the routine tasks on the farm; Tractor and Fork Truck driving and importantly pruning. I was very impressed as we toured the farm; it was clear the tree management in all the orchards is excellent.
As a former grower, you only have to walk into an orchard to 'know' if it has been managed well; immediately I could see 'uniformity' as every tree had the same superb structure. This has been achieved by a quite simple process.
Recognising the early years are vital for establishing a good tree shape, Robert has been responsible for pruning all the young trees from day 1 until the tree is 5 years old.
The simple logic of only one person establishing the basic tree shape in those early years can be seen as every tree has a perfect shape; e.g. 3 - 4 base branches set just above horizontal and a pivotal centre leader. Fruiting branches are developed on the base branches and the centre leader, and renewed as required.
BELOW - LEFT: in the 2nd year, the base branches are at the perfect angle, and the centre leader has been cut back hard to ensure a strong leader is established for year 3. RIGHT: This 6 year old tree demonstrates the benefit of setting the base branch angles in the early years of the tree's development.
Below an example of a Bramley orchard with 100% uniformity!
In 2009 the family celebrated 100 years at Foxbury Farm.
Like many farmers, the family were 'hoarders' and after sifting through the many artefacts Robert & Ian staged an exhibition to celebrate the Centenary. Robert & his wife Helen spent 6 months putting it all together in the form of a book. Robert acknowledges Helen was the main author.
The farm in 2009 extended to 200 hectares and employed 15 full time staff. The main crops were Bramley apples, Conference pears, Egremont Russet apples and Cobnuts. All the top fruit was sold through membership of SGT with Sainsburys as the main customer. Fruit was packed at SGT pack-houses (August Pitts) with fruit stored at Foxbury or Sheet Hill Farms.
When Ian decided to retire, Robert saw an opportunity to change the direction of the business.
The Robert Mitchell Partnership was closed down (dissolved) employees were 'sadly' made redundant and Robert formed a new business with Helen; "Robert Mitchell Farms" Ian & Robert split the farmland and assets into two holdings, Ian at Foxbury and Robert at Sheet Hill Farm, just a few miles apart.
Robert now farms as "Robert Mitchell Farms" the partnership formed as a husband & wife venture with Helen. The partnership farms 93 hectares of orchards + land available for new orchards. As part of the new business, Robert employed five of the staff from the former business; Robert Mitchell Partnership.
Robert and Helen re-examined the nature of the business and decided to move away from supplying Supermarkets directly, and take control of their own marketing. Concerned that the power of Supermarkets gave them less control over their destiny, and with the attendant risk of dependence on one major retailer, Robert and Helen set out to widen their customer base.
Robert set an objective to have 20+ outlets to avoid becoming over dependent on one or two customers. They now major on 'processing outlets' with 75% marketed that way and 25% sold as fresh product. Some fruit does end up in Supermarkets, but only via RMF supplying large independent grower packers, like A.C Goatham. This is primarily the outlet for their Conference Pears.
Upset by the residue of fruit left behind (on the trees) after picking to the designated customer specifications, Robert decided to send this fruit to be made into apple & pear juice.
OWLETS (Colin Corfield) press fruit for customers and bottle and label it to their suppliers needs. Hence "Mitchells Juice" came into being. RMF now supply 10 local retailers with juice. In 2011 they 'trebled' their juice production. Their recipe; is a mix of Bramley, Golden Delicious, Egremont Russet + a (secret) mix of 25% from other marginal varieties. The Pear Juice is a mixture of Conference & Concorde + 10% Bramley.
Storage; an essential tool for Robert is provided by 25% on farm storage; circa 1970/80's vintage, only suitable for 8-10% Co2 regimes; No low Oxygen storage on the farm. Fruit sold to processors (Fourayes) is stored by the processor on other storage sites, 'a common practice' within the grower/processor market.
Visiting the farm office, situated in the building which has served time as a large 'broiler' chicken shed, but has been re-fashioned to incorporate the farm office and accommodation units for the extra farm staff required for harvesting. Robert Mitchell Farms looks after the student workforce extremely well, with more than adequate facilities for the relaxation needs of the students, including a specific unit for web communication, enabling students the full capability for communicating with their families back home and any web based activities relevant to the development of their educational needs.
Below; Golding Hop Cold Stores - The office for Robert Mitchell Farms and the Accommodation Block for students.
Robert and Helen have two sons. James 24; who is an electronics engineer with SONY, and Alexander 20; who is currently at University in London, studying Broadcasting Technology.
Alexander has been very helpful to the new partnership with his creation of the very informative Robert Mitchell Farms website. Robert hopes that in time, Alexander will be the 'next generation' to take on the family mantle!
The family history is both fascinating and an example of determination to succeed.
Before we continue with Robert's achievements it is well worth reviewing the 'Mitchell Family History' to fully appreciate the intelligence and ethic for hard work which is imbued in the Mitchell lineage.
Mitchell family History:
The story begins in Scotland, where from the early 1800's they lived in rented properties near Paisley. They were hand loom weavers of 'Paisley Shawls' and from this modest background we can trace the family migration into Kent.
The Mitchells in Kent!
In 1892 with the help of glowing 'character' references, Johnston and Elizabeth Mitchell were able to take the tenancy on Church Farm, Ryarsh, near West Malling in Kent. "The scene was set" and from those small seeds, the Mitchell dynasty in Kent grew steadily over the next century.
In 1908 their son Robert married Elsie Edith Hollands the daughter of a farming family from Platt House in West Malling.
Robert Mitchell (1881 - 1958)
The dynasty as we know it today really started with Robert Mitchell in 1909 as he and his wife Elsie started married life at Foxbury Farm. They had two children; one Robert Johnston William Mitchell (RJW) was the present Robert Mitchell's father.
Robert Johnstone William Mitchell (RJW)
Robert Mitchell's son, born in 1909 and affectionately known to family and friends as RJW, was a very intelligent man. Reading geology at Kings College London he received his degree of Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours on 29th October 1929. RJW travelled to Peru with an oil company called 'Compania Petrolera Lobitos' in 1930, using his skill to find oil. He was very successful in Peru working with and befriending J.C.C.Williams and they had many adventures together and became very good friends.
After World War 2; RJW was now an experienced farmer and fruit grower, having learnt so much from his father and Uncle Donald. Being a geologist RJW was interested in the science of farming; one of his interests was 'controlled atmosphere' storage. His father and uncle had built cold stores at Wateringbury and Foxbury and RJW, keen to further his knowledge attended a conference in 1948 seeking data and new techniques enabling him to build further 'modern' stores at his farm at Otford.
In a rather poignant picture of RJW in, 1982 celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Brenchley & District Discussion Group with fellow members, RJW is seated at the front on the left, next to him (centre) is his great friend Raymond Wickham. Many years later his son Robert was presented with the Raymond Wickham Memorial Award for his services to the fruit industry.
Robert Mitchell MBE
Returning our story to the present, and as previously mentioned, when discussing his life to date; Robert comments; "I guess I have lived my life 'back to front' by comparison to others"
While most people who achieve distinction beyond the confines of their everyday life, venture into politics or charitable works in their later years, Robert has indeed done things 'back to front' largely due to the benefit of farming with his brother, sharing responsibility and allowing them both to accept positions outside of their everyday working life.
As a member of the Regional HCIC (Horticultural Crop Information Committee) Robert plays an important role in crop forecasting.
As Vice Chairman of The APRC (Apple & Pear Research Council) working closely with the Chairman Ian Swingland, Robert was very involved in the post-harvest research work carried out at East Malling Research. He is still a Trustee of EMR and for 13 years very much at the heart of The Marden Fruit Show, first as a committee member, then progressing from Junior Vice Chairman under The Chairman Peter Tipples, before holding the Vice Chairman's role under Alan Todd, and finally taking on the senior role of Chairman for a 5 year period.
Robert acknowledges the support of two very fine MFS Secretaries; Carole Quinlan and Gill Collins. During his tenure as Chairman, the now regular 'After Show Event' was launched, with the first at Ampleforth Abbey back in 2003
In the picture below, Robert is delivering a sample of English apples from The Marden Fruit Show Society to the Marks & Spencer store in Paris.
While the many industry associated roles would be an admirable achievement for most fruit farmers, the highlight was Robert's 17 year involvement with CONCORDIA.
21 years ago Robert was invited to join the board of Concordia as the Director representing growers. To those unfamiliar with Concordia, it is a company which has been integral to the recruitment of students from overseas; many from Eastern Europe, working and gaining life experiences on farms in the UK. It is however, much more than that.
After 3 years Robert became Chairman, and in his 14 years in the Chair, (unpaid) grew the company 'exponentially' To many people, including myself, Concordia is a mechanism for locating and managing students coming to UK farms for summer work experience through SAWS (Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme)
But Concordia was founded as a charity in 1943 with the aim of recruiting British volunteers to pick fruit and crops as part of the war effort. Nearly 70 years on Concordia has grown considerably. Still very much a non-profit organisation, Concordia is now internationally recognised, providing workers and volunteers from over 50 nations, with placements in the UK and abroad.
Welfare is paramount and Concordia inspects the facilities and working practices on farms and ensures the students are looked after properly and rewarded with wages commensurate with the work they carry out.
Robert initiated many changes at Concordia and now the company is well known for sponsoring young people for voluntary work around the world. Through the 'Volunteer Department' young people from the UK may work in other countries and conversely young people from overseas may come here to work.
This People Profile is very much about Robert's achievements but clearly the success of The Robert Mitchell Partnership in the period after RJW's passing is very much about a 'partnership' and neither Robert or Ian would have achieved so much in their 'off farm' activities without the support of each other.
The brothers have been recognised many times for their outstanding achievements and one which endorses their farming prowess came in 1999 when they were joint winners of The Novartis Grower of the Year and Overall Grower of the year Award.
Below; Robert and Ian receiving The Grower of the Year Award
Robert received The Raymond Wickham Memorial Award in 2006 and this honour was complemented in 2008 when he was awarded The David Hilton Memorial Medal along with his brother Ian, for their outstanding services to the fruit industry.
When I visited Robert in May he was upbeat about the prospects for 2012, with strong blossom on his Bramley apples and a very good initial set on the Conference pears. It was a shame the weather was below par, but even through the mist, the farm has a natural beauty and the blossom adds to the spectacle.
As we toured the farm, other ventures were clearly visible; Robert has maintained the family interest in Pigs; we passed by these 'fine specimens' happily cultivating old orchard land.
Kent Cobnuts have a history in the area around Plaxtol and have been part of the Mitchell Family portfolio for many years
Also on our tour the Conference Pears indicated a heavy fruit set; 'of course' they had not reached the stage where the fruitlets 'turn over' a point in the process where they can, and often do, drop off!
Mechanical pruning is 'in vogue' and Robert has used it successfully in his pears. Robert has a small team of experienced full time staff, some of whom joined him after the dissolution of the Robert Mitchell Partnership.
2012 and 'all that'
As the 2012 season evolved, the challenge of a mix of extreme rainfall and cold weather at the critical stages of fruit development tested the resolve of many apple & pear growers.
Even the oldest and wisest members of the top fruit growing fraternity are hard pressed to remember a season as wet as 2012, with many growers losing flowers to an early frost, and lack of sunshine and warmth turning pollination into a 'lottery' followed by sporadic hail storms.
Visiting again after harvest, Robert reviewed the 2013 crop with an air of disappointment; a yield of 60% compared to 2011, after the fantastic show of blossom back in May is hard to accept.
The season has been difficult, but at The National Fruit Show in October Robert and his staff fulfilled a long held ambition. After years of trying unsuccessfully, the farm finally won a class that has always eluded them; The R. Mitchell Challenge Cup named after his grandfather Robert Mitchell, founder of The Robert Mitchell Partnership, a business that ran through three generations including the current Robert and his brother Ian, until Ian retired and the partnership dissolved.
Never before had the family business won the R. Mitchell Challenge Cup, awarded to the Best Exhibit of any dessert apple variety bred at East Malling Research since 1967; the eligible Classes 12, 18 or 20, are for dessert varieties not catered for in the variety specific classes.
In 2012 the name of Robert Mitchell Farms finally adorned this prestigious Cup.
The challenge of growing fruit however was put sharply into context in November, when Helen Mitchell lost her battle with Cancer.
Helen has left a legacy of love and support which Robert and their sons, James and Alexander will draw on during the years ahead.
A proud moment for Robert Mitchell MBE, and Helen Mitchell outside Buckingham Palace in June 2011.
In conclusion; with more than 100 years of farming in the Sevenoaks Weald, the family structure is 'in place' for the continuation of a Mitchell presence at the leading edge of top fruit growing for many years to come!
Finally; readers of The English Apple Man should Visit ROBERT MITCHELL FARMS excellent website with regular updates of seasonal activity!