While Vitifruit itself was only set up by David and business partner Richard Witt around a dozen years ago, David has abeen supplying vineyard equipment for some 44 years, beginning not long after growers first recognised this country’s potential for growing grapes.

It’ s a track record that makes him the longest-established importer of vineyard machinery in the UK and has given Vitifruit a reputation with suppliers that furnishes the company with a major advantage when sourcing and supplying equipment to growers.

“We are sole importers of much of the equipment we provide, and we know it’s the best there is because we have been selling it for a long time and we researched it thoroughly in the first place,” Richard commented. “Growers who want the most reliable equipment at the best price point know that we can supply it.”

The other major ‘selling’ point with Vitifruit is that by “supply”, Richard doesn’t just mean “sell”. The company has a thriving hire business that allows potential customers to try out a piece of equipment in real world conditions before deciding whether or not to buy it.

Indeed, as David explained, it’s positively encouraged. “We have machinery at a range of price points, but it can be a big commitment to buy a piece of specialist equipment for a vineyard, so making sure it’s exactly right for your set-up has to be a good thing. The other issue, of course, is that some of this kit is only used for one task, once a year, so it can make sense to hire it rather than buy it.”

The range of machinery on offer is impressive, covering all the usual vineyard tasks, although Vitifruit does not supply winery equipment or tractors, since it would be difficult to provide nationwide backup to its usual standard.

“We pride ourselves on being able to look after the equipment we provide, and by choosing our manufacturers carefully we find most of it rarely goes wrong. Tractors would add another dynamic – and would be more challenging in terms of deliveries around the country – so we stick to what we know best,” David explained.

For everything else, though, from pruning and tying down through spraying, mowing and weed control, subsoiling and compost spreading and on to canopy management, Vitifruit has become the supplier of choice for many of the country’s best-known vineyards.

Its carefully selected products come from manufacturers including Lipco, MM, Provitis, Boisselet, Ligatex, Fehrenbach, Sauerburger and Zanon, while for frost protection David and Richard have recently teamed up with French company Ventigel, which manufactures a machine that blows warm air across the vines to dry the buds and raise the temperature at the same time.

Such is the company’s reputation, that manufacturers such as Sitevi in Montpelier and Sifel in Bordeaux regularly approach Vitifruit at trade shows to ask the company to distribute their products.

It’s a far cry from the early 1980s, when David first realised that there was a gap in the market for a specialist machinery supplier and set out to find equipment that would be suitable for UK vineyards.

He was working as a machinery salesman for two South East-based dealerships who were mainly supplying fruit growers when he came across a newly established vineyard in Penshurst in Sussex, one of only a handful across the country at the time.

“I soon realised that while this new crop was beginning to take off, the growers were making do with existing bits of equipment rather than using kit that was designed specifically for the jobs that needed doing around the vineyards,” he said.

At one vineyard he visited, David met a German employee who gave him some useful information and a number of industry contacts that inspired him to travel to viticulture exhibitions in Montpelier and Stuttgart.  There he found the equipment he was looking for and that the UK’s steadily growing wine industry needed.

“Over the years I went on to build relationships with manufacturers across Europe and with growers across the South East and beyond,” he recalled. “The aim was to provide a range of good quality, reliable machinery at a reasonable price point that wouldn’t need an army of people to maintain it or a warehouse full of spare parts ‘just in case’.”

David traded under his own name until 2011, when he teamed up with Richard to form Vitifruit Machinery. With the rise and rise of vineyards in the UK, the company’s head start is now paying dividends. “We put a lot of effort into making the right connections and sourcing the right equipment in the early days and now we are able to ride the wave of an increasingly thriving industry,” Richard commented.

Vitifruit aims to provide a variety of equipment that hits a broad range of price points but is also well built, low maintenance and long lasting. The breadth of the range is evident in sprayers, where as well as the renowned Lipco range, the company stocks the Italian-built MM models that are ideally suited to small to medium-sized vineyards.

The decision to stock equipment for hire as well as for demonstration purposes was made early on, and many growers now take advantage of the ‘try before you buy’ option, particularly for jobs that may only need doing once in a season.

“It means we have to be shrewd about what we buy in, as we don’t want to be stuck with equipment for which there isn’t a market,” explained Richard. “It encourages us to do our homework, and so far we’ve always managed to pick winners.”

Richard estimated that around one third of the company’s current income came from equipment hire, with two thirds of customers going down the traditional sales route. Sprayers are the only pieces of machinery that are not available to hire.

Given the complex nature of the equipment and the fact that a fair number of growers are new to the industry, Vitifruit makes sure customers are happy that the machinery is not just right for their needs but works with their tractor and is set up properly.

Han Rushanov, a talented fitter, visits clients to install new equipment and make sure it runs properly before demonstrating how it works. “It’s not easy to find skilled and experienced people in such a young industry, and from Vitifruit’s perspective, ‘OK’ is not good enough,” said David. “Han is a remarkably skilled individual who has taken the service we offer to a different level.”

Equally valued as a member of the Vitifruit team is David Wood, who looks after the servicing and repairs side of the business.

While the expansion of grape growing in the UK has led to a number of manufacturers approaching Vitifruit with a view to exporting to this country, David and Richard are confident that in most cases they are already dealing with the right suppliers.

David also pointed out that while the area of land under vines in the UK has now hit around 4,000 hectares, there are vineyards in Europe that are close to that on their own. “Yes, the growth here is exciting, but we are still tiny by comparison,” he pointed out.

Vitifruit offers machinery from new manufacturers only after a careful vetting process to make sure that it is reliable, cost-effective and does the job it is supposed to do. The MM Italian range of air assisted sprayers aimed at smaller vineyards is a case in point. “They do exactly what they claim and have proved ideal for the target market,” David commented.

Provitis, which he referred to as “The Swiss Army Knife of grape growing”, produces a wide range of equipment that is all attached to one central mast fixed to the tractor. The comprehensive range includes a trimmer, bud rubber, leaf remover, stem cleaner, pre-pruner and pulling-out and tucking and tying equipment, all built to a high standard.

“Because it all attaches to the same mast, the grower saves money on the control system, which he or she only has to buy once,” Richard pointed out.

Equally flexible is the Boisselet modular system, which is based on a frame from which a variety of tools can be hung. The Boisselet is particularly good for under-vine weeding, leaving the roots but removing the stems of unwanted plants and avoiding the use of chemicals. It’s adjustable torque servo motor means it can be used on young vines without causing any damage.

Lipco’s recycling sprayers are renowned in the industry, ticking an important environmental box by not throwing spray around the countryside while at the same time cutting costs by reducing wastage. “Figures show that Lipco sprayers use 30% to 40% less chemical and water,” David explained.

Most Lipco models also spray in both directions from the centre, which means they cover two rows of vines with one pass, and their recycling function means they can be used in light (but not gale force) winds.

The Ventigel frost protection equipment comes from an experienced French manufacturer and benefits from a flexible power source. The fans have powerful electric motors requiring three-phase supply from mains, static or pto tractor-driven generators. By blowing warm air across the vineyard, one machine can protect around two-and-a-half to three hectares of fruit.

Vitifruit benefits from close links with Vinescapes, which provides expertise and advice to growers around the country. “If the Vinescapes team is advising a new entrant to the industry and is asked about equipment, they tend to point them in our direction as they know we have the expertise to advise them,” Richard commented.

David has seen plenty of changes over the past 44 years but is particularly impressed by the professionalism shown by growers and by the steadily increasing quality of the wine produced here in the UK. He puts that down in large part to better educated growers, something for which he thinks Plumpton College should take much of the credit.

On the flip side, he sees attracting labour to the vineyards as being a challenge. “A lot of people who are interested in wine would rather work in the winery than get their hands dirty outside with the vines,” he pointed out.

“On the other hand, the shortage of workers is leading to more mechanisation, which is good for business!” he added.