Leslie Acott (left) in his greengrocers in Tunbridge Wells. (Picture taken around 1950)

My Grandfather, Leslie Acott, was a greengrocer in the town of Tunbridge Wells (South East England). Although he passed away shortly after I was born, I’ve been told many times about his Orchard visits. Every year he used to tour Kent orchards to inspect the apple crops. He’d go in May and June, 4-5 months before harvest whilst the apple fruitlets were still the size of a golf ball. If he decided it was going to be a good crop, he’d buy it on the spot to supply his shop in the autumn and winter.

And he was renowned for being right!

We don’t know how he did it, and it’s a skill that went with him, so we’ve developed new methods.

For the past 4 years Oli and I have been working with fruit growers, at first in Kent but now on 5 continents, to build a system using drones and AI that estimates the production of an orchard months before harvest. The Outfield approach uses a drone, owned by the grower and flying itself to an Outfield flight plan, which takes about 20 minutes to survey an orchard. We look at around 30% of the trees to get a good yield estimate and a size profile, and our amazing team of machine learning specialists can tell very consistently how many fruit are in the orchard, where they are, and now even what size they will be – helping the grower make decisions for a better crop, and get more of it to market.

It’s fair to say that not all 1950’s techniques were quite as effective as my Grandfather’s amazing yield estimating abilities. Growers did, and still do, make very good decisions for their orchards based on incredibly limited data, but not all intuitive approaches were the most effective. My friend Sarah Bradfield in Saffron Walden shared with us that her grandfather was a fruit grower in Norfolk (East England). Apparently he used to believe that stressing the trees during the season would increase their yield, which may have some merit looking at the modern literature. His chosen method however, was to stalk through the orchards some afternoons and, where he felt appropriate, suddenly fire his shotgun down a row of trees! I haven’t seen that reflected in the modern literature…

Leslie Acott (Right)

There aren’t many people like Grandfather alive today. It would have been amazing to sit down with him and try to understand how he managed to forecast yield using just his senses and his experience. I’d like to think, though, that he’d be as excited as we are about the potential of this technology for the fruit industry – helping the industry be more productive, more profitable and more sustainable.

We would absolutely challenge him to a yield forecasting competition from an orchard, and I’m sure he would be very gracious in his victory.

First Acott’s greengrocer. Grosvenor Road, Tunbridge Wells.

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