Our three finalists for Diversification Farmer of the Year demonstrated leadership and innovation in difficult markets – attributes that have taken their businesses to the next stage. Philip Case reports.
Lord Robert Newborough
Rhug Organic Farms, Wales
A focus on “sweating the assets” has helped grow business and cut costs at Rhug Organic Farm Estate, where the aim is to make use of every resource.
Since inheriting the farm in Corwen, north Wales from his father in 1998, Lord Newborough has remodelled the business. What was a low-input, low-output conventional farm is now a 1,457ha organic farming enterprise employing 85 people, of whom 98% are local, with an expected turnover of £5.5m this year.
The diversification started on a “suck it and see basis” in 2002 with staff in two vans selling burgers made from organic meat produced on the farm to the passing public on the A5.
This created a “grab-and-go” food culture “like Mumbai”, which attracted everyone from lorry drivers and bikers to tourists and passers-by on their way to shoots.
On busy weekends, 3,000 people would stop off at Rhug for a bite to eat. This side of the business grew so much that Lord Newborough decided to invest in a new farm shop incorporating a restaurant and takeaway in 2011.
- 1,457ha organic farming enterprise in north Wales
- Converted to organic in 1998; now fully certified by the Soil Association
- All livestock bred and finished on farm with feed grown on the farm and goes to a local family-run abattoir
“I thought we needed inside eating and the shop. We have lost some of the feel of Mumbai, but managed to keep the grab-and-go bit with our burger bar, On the Hoof,” he explains.
The farm shop offers a range of more than 2,000 products, many local or organic. The butcher’s counter sells meat from the farm, and the deli counter contains 70 varieties of cheese, home-made pies and cured meats.
Diversification on farm produce has been based on cutting out the middleman and moving away from reliance on supermarkets. The estate supplies Waitrose and Sainsbury’s as well as top restaurants and hotels in London, Hong Kong, the Middle East, Macau and Singapore.
The farm produces organic beef, wild bison, lamb, salt marsh lamb, chicken, pork, and turkey and geese for the Christmas market. All stock is bred and finished on farm and goes to a family-run abattoir two miles away.
Last year, Lord Newborough invested in a state-of-the-art meat cutting and processing plant, which has a team of nine butchers. Orders can be taken daily, and prepared, packed and dispatched the same day.
“It gives our buyers total security and provenance – then there’s the Rhug Organic brand to go with it,” he says.
A stall in London’s Borough Market selling organic meat straight from the farm has helped to increase the profile of the brand, with turnover reaching £150,000 a year.
A wholesale quality-meat business covers the country, with a delivery service into London and the North West every week and couriers for nationwide mail orders. Customers include delis, baby food makers, airlines and trains.
But the wholesale business is not just meat. Rhug even sells bark off the trees and hay to restaurants overseas to use for presentation purposes, demonstrating how every asset is “sweated”. Other such ventures include the composting of green waste, caravan storage in redundant buildings and summer events in sheds only used for lambing in the winter.
“Every estate has to look at ways to become more viable. We have had it lucky with the export part of the business; I don’t think I would have a wholesale business now if we hadn’t been exporting in the past few years,” he says.
Further diversification started in 2011 into renewables, including solar, geothermal, wind, ground-source and hydro schemes.
Meanwhile, farm tours, car boot sales, shooting, fishing, cross-country running, rally car driving and riding events add value to the estate land, while attracting visitors from home and abroad.
Mash Direct, Co Down, Northern Ireland
Ten years ago, over a glass of whiskey, arable farmer Martin Hamilton told his close friend Tony Reid about his dream to make traditional Irish “champ”.
Fifth-generation farmer Martin and his wife Tracy diversified their wholesale farming business and formed Mash Direct in 2004.
Now they are market leaders in their field, producing an innovative range of quality, ready-cooked mashed potato, vegetable and cabbage products.
The Hamiltons had been growing and selling vegetables for more than 20 years near the shores of Strangford Lough in County Down, Northern Ireland. But times were tough and the couple, who have two sons – Lance, now 27, and Jack, 25 – desperately needed an upturn in fortunes.
- Started Mash Direct in 2004 after 20 years struggling to make a profit out of fresh vegetable crops
- The family farms 405ha at Ballyrainey House, Comber, Co Down, Northern Ireland
- Potatoes and root vegetables such as parsnips, carrots and swede are the main crops and spring barley is grown as a break crop
“We were making no money; our margins had gone completely,” Martin recalls. “Tony and I were drinking whiskey on a Friday night. I said: ‘That’s it. We’re going to make champ’. He said: ‘That’s a brilliant idea’.”
Martin grew up eating champ, a traditional Irish recipe of mashed potato and spring onions, served by his mother and grandmother. To recreate the recipe, he planted old-fashioned heritage varieties for taste rather than appearance.
The Hamiltons baulked at paying £125,000 for a cooker to steam the farm’s produce. Instead, farm engineer Tony built one – and built a further five since, each an improvement on the last.
All Mash Direct vegetables are steam-cooked and packaged on the farm. The production facility has grown steadily and a new industrial kitchen is under construction.
For packaging, black trays are imported from Israel, film from European companies and outer sleeves from a small firm in County Down. Biodegradable trays, made from sugar cane extracts, could soon be used.
About 50% of the vegetables are grown and harvested on the 405ha family farm. Maris Piper is the variety of choice for the mash, at nearly 90%. The rest of the produce is sourced from British farmers, mostly “outgrades” from the packers – misshapen vegetables that don’t meet supermarket criteria but still match the quality of Mash Direct produce.
Initially, the Hamiltons rented a van and took produce to sell at St George’s Market in Belfast. Then they tried farm shops and butchers. “We surrounded them with these products that they just didn’t have. Eventually, they came to us,” says Jack.
Now supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s, Budgens and Thistle, have signed up – as well as Dubai-based retailer Spinneys. Pub chain JD Wetherspoons and food delivery service Ocado are also on board.
However “Mash Direct” is a bit of a misnomer – it isn’t all about making potato products. Nowadays, the team produces 31 quality, convenient vegetable and potato dishes, ranging from traditional accompaniments of mashed potato and champ to pie tops and complete ready-meals.
Some products are targeted at specific countries, such as “Neeps & Tatties” for Scotland, packaged in a Tartan box, and St Patrick’s Day Supper, a trinity of mashed potato, turnip and green cabbage, packaged in a box featuring an Irish clover leaf.
Martin believes there is “no limit on innovation” and is developing products such as potato croquettes, gluten-free lines and “athlete’s superfood” black kale.
Since 2004, turnover has increased from £1m annually to £1m monthly in March 2013. The business now employs 106 workers, and an additional 15 on farm.
The business growth rate is 30% annually and Martin intends to buy a farm in England in 2015 to cope with the demand.
“The concept of Mash Direct is so simple. The lovely thing is, we can repeat it again, or change our rotation and plant different crops, and on we go.”
Barleylands Farm, Billericay, Essex
A commitment to the community passed on through generations and a passion to teach society about food and agriculture is at the heart of an Essex family farming enterprise.
Educating schoolchildren about how their food ends up on the plate has transformed Barleylands Farm into an integrated network of small businesses, offering hands-on practical activities and memorable learning experiences.
Brothers Chris, Andrew and Stuart Philpot manage Barleylands in Billericay with the help of their father Peter, now semi-retired, and an enthusiastic staff of 40-50.
Last year more than 11,000 schoolchildren visited, and farm directors want to boost the numbers to 20,000 over the next few years.
Barleylands has forged links with local councils, schools and other food education providers such as Farm for Schools, Growing Schools, Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and the Food for Life Partnership. Education officer Karen Watson heads a team of five to offer a variety of workshops that fit curriculum needs. Themed food and farming days can be linked to most subject areas, including the Tudors, the Victorians, the Second World War, literacy, maths and science.
- 800ha in Essex and Sussex
- Business showcases educational programme teaching 11,000 schoolchildren annually
- Farm Park includes a Discovery Centre, home to vintage tractors and interactive exhibits
Children ranging from primary to secondary school age are typically taken into the field, shown how the crops are grown, how they look in their harvested raw form and what ingredient they end up becoming.
“The children are taken on tractor rides to see the wheat growing in the field,” Chris explains. “They come in and grind the wheat into flour to make their own bread and pizzas in the Cookery Centre. We teach children about the journey of their food from field to fork – it’s the whole thing.”
The Farm Park includes a Discovery Centre packed with fascinating farming memorabilia offering visitors a unique interactive look at how farming has progressed over the years.
Visitors are treated to three-dimensional views of classic tractors, which they can sit on, while children dress up in Victorian clothing and learn about farming during wartime Britain.
But there is something about farming for everyone at all levels to learn – for example a kaleidoscope of more than 20 seeds of different sizes ranging from Timothy hay to maize and beans. Farm owners have also spent £10,000 decking out a movie theatre, which screens practical farming videos.
Elsewhere, at Barleylands Farm Park, farmyard animals, a bird of prey centre, a day nursery, indoor and outdoor play areas and a miniature railway can be found. And work has just started on a new animal barn in the park.
More than 600,000 visitors passed through the gates of Barleylands Craft Village last year, which houses more than 60 studios and shops, a café and an à la carte restaurant.
As a business, Barleylands engages with the wider community and stages numerous events and activities – for example, an Annual Charity Walk raising more than £50,000, grounds for Essex Scouts and Guides and football pitches for more than 70 local teams.
Barleylands hosts the annual Essex Country Show, which attracts about 35,000 visitors and raises more than £20,000 for charities, the Essex Young Farmers’ Club Country Show and farmers’ markets twice a month.
The arable farming operation produces a mix of crops including cereals, oilseed rape, peas, beans, potatoes and sugar beet.
Over the past three years, the Philpots have invested in two reservoirs for rainwater harvesting, which store 76m gallons.
The ethos of the business has enabled Barleylands to subsidise its not-for-profit educational programme. “This is a team effort – it’s not something I have done on my own,” Chris says. “We are trying to farm properly and get the balance right between nature, conservation and farming.
“In addition, we feel we have a responsibility to educate the general public about farming and how we make the food they eat.”
“Firestone has proudly sponsored the Farmers Weekly Awards since their launch and picking a winner gets harder every year. We were bowled over by the drive, imagination and thoroughness of the three finalists who are each ‘winners’ in their own right”
Find out more about the 2013 Farmers Weekly Awards