This section is from the book "Commercial Gardening Vol3", by John Weathers (the Editor). Also available from Amazon: Commercial Gardening, A Practical & Scientific Treatise For Market Gardeners.
The grading and packing of fruit, it may be said without fear of contradiction, are becoming more important matters for the grower every year.
No one who takes a walk round any fruit market during the home-fruit season can doubt that very much yet remains to be learnt, and more to be practised, before the goal of perfection comes into sight. In the case of apples and pears, and the better sorts of plums, careful grading into "firsts", "seconds", and "thirds", and the putting of all "specks" by themselves is essential if anything near the upper ranges of price is to be reached. The " firsts" will pay for tasty setting up. The cherries, gages, and pears of our French neighbours are splendid examples of what taste and skill can accomplish in setting fruit off to advantage. It is wonderful what a little paper, wood wool, and deft fingers can do, and how ready the public are to pay for it (fig. 328). Then, as to packages, a steady, silent revolution is taking place in regard to these also. Time was when Hessle pears were brought to Covent Garden from Fulham in load " baskets" holding 4 bus. each!
Fig. 328. - Apples in Flat Basket with Lid. Packed with fine wood wool.
FRUIT ROOM WITH APPLES STORED IN WOODEN TRAYS Each tray contains a bushel of apples, and there are 614 trays in the room.
Photo. Chas. I.. Clarko.
With profound apologies to our Evesham friends and their "pot", it may be said with confidence that a bushel is the largest measure in which fruit of any kind should be sent to market, and this only for cooking apples and the harder sorts of pear. For plums, dessert apples, and the better kinds of pear the 1/2-bus. is the largest measure that should be used; for ripe plums a smaller measure still is desirable, and where apples and pears are grown clean and good there should be many that it will pay to send up in single-layer trays to be sold by the dozen.
Where fruit has to be sent long distances the inconvenience and expense of returning empties has turned many minds to the task of devising a package which shall be strong enough to stand the knocking about of travel, and yet be low enough in price to admit of being given away with the fruit; thus have come about what are called " non-returnables".
From the point of view of the grower who provides his own baskets the question is one for serious consideration. What happens to the baskets is generally this: the grower sells his fruit at market to a "packer", who sends it away to retailers at seaside places or provincial towns, leaving with the grower Is. on each basket. The retailer has purchased an orchard or two of fruit of the kind one sees close to almost every farmhouse in the country. When he has sold the fruit out of the basket received from the sender he keeps it and uses it for gathering his purchased fruit. It is true he has left Is. on it with the packer; but there is no time limit, and he can get his shilling back whenever he returns the basket, so long as it can just hold together enough to be called a basket. Consequently, when all his purchased fruit has been disposed of, and when the basket which he received from the packer new is more than three parts worn out, he sends it back and claims his shilling. The grower, about mid-winter, when marketings are slack and funds low, gets numbers of rickety baskets back which went out of his place new, and out of which he has only had the use of one journey, each one carrying a demand for a shilling. All through his busy season he has had to keep supplying new baskets for his fruit. It is no wonder, therefore, that the idea of non-returnables found the grower ready to regard it as a business proposition. To get rid of the " empty " question was worth giving away a fourpenny box with a half-bushel of fruit and a sixpenny one with a bushel; if competition brought the prices lower, so much the better. For the packer, one cannot imagine a more desirable reform. In the case of fruit in baskets he must provide packing and staves, and men to stave each basket securely down in the vain endeavour to guard against "plunging", as pilfering en route is called. With the non-returnable box the whole of this is saved, plundering is impossible, and, last but not least, the anxiety, expense, and trouble of dealing with empties is entirely obviated. For the retailer at the other end the fruit comes in a non-resilient package and consequently less liable to damage in transit from rubbing. The package is good enough, when empty, to go several times to get fruit from his purchased orchards, and can afterwards be used for the humble but necessary purpose of lighting the domestic fire, and he is saved the locking up of his capital in the shillings deposited on. Most of the packages bear a name or mark indicating the grower from which they come, so that if one should be foolish enough or rogue enough to use the nail-down package to cover careless or dishonest packing, the buyer can guard against being twice bitten, while if one mark suits him better than another he can arrange with the packer to send him that one in preference to another.
No one can say that the advantages claimed above for the non-returnable are either imaginary or inconsequential, yet it will hardly be believed that during the autumn of 1910 packers were paying 5s. 6d. and 6s. per bushel for Hessle pears in baskets, and were refusing to give more than 5s. for pears of an equally good sample in bushel boxes, each of which held more than a basket, and notwithstanding the expense and labour of packing and staking entailed by the baskets. One large packer showed a grower letters and telegrams from Yorkshire and Lancashire asking for Monarch plums in baskets not in boxes. There was no question of preferring a certain mark in baskets to another in boxes; the preference was for the plums in baskets.
It is a commonplace of literature and conversation to gird at the farmer for his preference for the continuance of things as they were, and some of the shots, ricochetting, hit the market gardener; but the tendency thrives luxuriantly behind the counter of the retailer as well. No one who has not tried it, knows the difficulty and loss entailed to the man who endeavours to get some improvement in package, packing, or dealing accepted by the retail trade. When first the non-returnable plum box appeared on a grower's stand, one of the largest and most experienced of the Covent Garden fruit merchants said to him: "Yes,they are bound to come in time; but take my advice, don't be a pioneer, it doesn't pay. Let somebody else do that, and you follow!" [w. G. L.]