Looking back at NAGA 2022: Fruit Grower of the Year

LinkedIn +

The winner of Fruit Grower of the Year at the National Arable and Grassland Awards is a seventh generation farmer busy diversifying the family business and selling direct to consumers.

R J & H L Hancocks is a substantial Herefordshire operation, growing cider apples and hops. In the last ten years, Robert Hancocks has diversified the business alongside his son Henry, taking some of the orchard out of contract to develop his own brand, selling cider direct to consumers and wholesale to bars and restaurants.

When asked if he felt he did anything unique to secure the honour of Fruit Grower of the Year at the National Arable and Grassland Awards, Robert is modest. “The weather still plays the greatest part in producing high quality fruit,” he said. “Having the right temperatures, sunlight and water means that the sugar levels are high. Beyond that, we try and establish at the right time, keep to tight windows to get the fertiliser on and keep pest and disease pressure low.”

NAGA 2022 Fruit Grower of the Year

Fruit Grower of the Year Robert Hancocks (centre) collected his award from Jill Hewitt, chief executive of the National Association of Agricultural Contractors, and host Justin Moorhouse

Of the 300 acres, 160 is set aside as orchard, growing a range of apple varieties including traditional cider favourite Dabinett, as well as Harry Masters, Michelin, Ashton Bitters and Three Counties. Another 30 acres is used for hops, which is sold to various breweries including Holdens in the Black Country – a contract that has provided an income for 50 years. The rest of the ground is currently down as grass, grazing a small flock of sheep.

Expansion of the business was driven by Robert in the mid-90s. The farm, which had always grown cider apples and hops but was previously focused on beef and sheep, decided to move out of livestock and increase the acreage of the orchard. Further investment came in 2000, when he had his own press installed, converting some of the livestock buildings in the process.

“It enabled us to bring more of the operation inhouse, maximising our profitability,” Robert explained. “We continued to grow all of our apples under contract for various cider makers for another decade, when we decided to start selling direct.”

The Celtic Marches company was set up in 2012, with Robert’s sister Susan Vaughan, who created the brand and manages the day-to-day business. At this point, a ten-year contract with Magners was coming to an end, and Robert and Susan both saw this as the opportunity to grow the business. In 2016, it expanded operations again to handle bottling and packaging, setting up a small plant in nearby Bromyard.

NAGA 2022 Fruit Grower

A selection of Celtic Marches and Radlow Wine products

“Being able to control our product, from establishment, through picking to the bottle, means that we can maximise our income while ensuring the overall quality,” explained Robert.

While the majority of the apple harvest goes into the Celtic Marches range of ciders, which includes its Pulp-branded fruit infused canned ciders, the company still maintains smaller scale contracts with other producers including Westons.

A multi-faceted business

Robert noted that the layout of the business has always been focused on surviving the volatility of agriculture. Beyond the issues around global crop prices with which all farmers will be familiar, Robert produces almost solely for the leisure industry, meaning that in periods of recession, or during the Covid-19 lockdowns, he saw demand for cider apples and hops drop significantly.

“It’s normally a situation that many will recognise, where hops are in demand and cider apples are down, then the next season the market recovers,” he said. “The last two years have been completely unprecedented. The market for cider, be it in people’s homes or in bars and restaurants, dried up overnight.”

NAGA 2022 Fruit Grower

The hops harvest is labour intensive, but remains an important part of the business.

Susan and Robert moved fast, keeping on all 10 staff members employed at the Bromyard and acquiring contracts to bottle and package hand sanitiser. While this helped them through the pandemic, when lockdown was over, there was a surplus of hops which impacted the farmgate price, placing additional pressure on the business.

“We’re getting back to normal now but it’s certainly had an impact on our expansion plans,” said Robert.

The most significant of these plans is the establishment of a vineyard and the integration of a new enterprise, Radlow Wines, into the portfolio. The vineyard, which is just over a hectare at present, was planted in 2019 and, unusually, the company was able to get a viable grape harvest in the second season, with the first bottles of Hereford-grown wine available to purchase.

“It’s gone very well so far,” said Robert. “But between the pandemic and the situation in Ukraine, it has made me more cautious about any further expansion. Instead, my focus is on securing the income we currently have and letting the market settle.”

The various upheavals the UK has undergone has also impacted staffing levels. Separate from the 10 factory workers and six sales people working for Celtic Marches, Robert hires four full-time employees on the farm, involved in everything from the establishment and harvest of the apples, hops and grapes, to the pressing and storage of up to 3.5 million litres of cider.

Staff numbers are bolstered by seasonal staff, which until Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, were sourced from Europe. “It’s been a massive struggle to get the number of people we require,” Robert said. “We’ve automated where possible, but apples, and particularly hops, are very labour intensive. What we try to do is find reliable staff for our hops harvest, who can keep on throughout for the orchard work.”

The last few years has seen Robert maintain production with a reduced labour force. This has placed greater emphasis on the machinery, which consists of good quality second-hand units, ex-demo machines and some historic equipment that has been utilised for decades.

NAGA 2022 Fruit Grower

The company has capacity for 3.5 million litres of cider on site.

Ten tractors are used on the farm, predominantly smaller specialist or yard tractors to work around the orchards and hops. The predominant brands are John Deere, New Holland and Same. Loader work is one of the more intensive jobs on the farm (whether it’s shifting or loading apple crates, moving pallets of the Celtic Marches product, or general farm work) so Robert keeps three machines in the fleet – a MatBro, a JCB and a Manitou.

Specialist equipment includes a Caffini airblast sprayer, a Tuthill shakers, blowers and harvesters for the orchard from Somerset Fruit Machinery and a 1960’s Bruff hops picker. The latter has been on the farm since new and poses a unique challenge when it comes to maintenance. “We have to get many of the parts specially made,” said Robert.

Drink to the future

With the recovery of the leisure industry, Robert hopes to ride out future volatility and begin further expansion plans for the farm. His main aim is continuing the long-term viability of the business by introducing new income streams. Exactly what this will look like, Robert isn’t 100% sure but there are several options available to him.

“It’s about bringing more things in-house, continuing to sell direct to the customer and creating something like circular economy on the farm,” he said. “There are possibilities around using the apple pomace to produce power on the farm; or perhaps even planting cereals which would offer another market for us.”

For the time being, the focus is on maintaining the hops and apples, and expanding the vineyard operation. “We’ll continue to invest in sales and marketing to grow the brand,” Robert added.

More information

Read about the 2023 NAGA winners, including this year’s Fruit Grower of the Year Award winner here.

For news and updates about the NAGA awards, nominees and winners, follow

National Arable and Grassland Awards




Share this story:

About Author