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Picture of the week: Armagh set to toast bumper harvest

It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. And do it they have - for more than 1,000 years.

Known as the Orchard County, or the Orchard of Ireland, Armagh produces 40,000 tonnes of apples every year.

More than 4,000 acres of the county are covered by apple trees. Approximately 90% of the crops are bramley apples, which are exported all over the world.

In 2012, the European Union granted the Armagh Bramley Apple Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for its distinctive flavour, characteristics and long shelf-life.

Apparently, it all began with Saint Patrick, who planted an apple tree at Ceangoba, an ancient settlement east of Armagh City.

Today, the MacNeice family are among 200 local growers contributing to a multi-million-pound industry.

MacNeice Fruit and MacNeice Bros have been growing apples in a 90-acre orchard in Ardress, near Portadown, since 1855 and established their apple cannery in 1969. Their produce is destined for pie fillings, cider and other culinary uses.

"MacNeice Bros is the growing side of the business and MacNeice Fruit Ltd is the manufacturing side for catering and the baking industry," explained Sammy MacNeice.

"We make MacIvor's apple cider, too. I specialise in the farming and growing and my son Greg takes care of the manufacturing side for canned apple, apple sauce and fresh pie mix.

"The apples got PGI status so it marks it out as special to the area. Quality-wise, it is different to any other bramley grown.

"It's firmer, it stands up in cooking and there's a tremendous taste from it," Sammy added.

Historical records show that apple growing was widespread in Co Armagh as early as the 12th century and orchard planting increased throughout the following years.

In the late 19th century the Bramley Seedling was introduced. This new variety was discovered by accident in England in 1876 and immediately won wide acclaim as the best culinary apple available.

This position has remained unchallenged throughout the British Isles for the past 100 years.

The Bramley endures as the public's first choice of cooking apple and therefore the most commercially farmed apple in Ireland and the UK.

Dermot Morgan, secretary of the Northern Ireland Fruit Growers Association (NIFGA), told the Belfast Telegraph that the Armagh Bramley is like no other cooking apple in the world and it has been a good season for growers.

"The weather has been quite favourable this year, the rain has come at just the right time," he said.

"The apples have started to swell out and the crop is going to be plentiful."

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