Diversification is a vital component of many farming businesses.
Our three finalists all demonstrate how it should be done – combining original ideas with business insight and creative thinking.
See also: Find out more about the Farmers Weekly Awards
Mash Direct County Down
This business was born out of a necessity to combat the falling profitability the agricultural sector and this relatively small farm faced at the turn of the century.
It is a straightforward concept, executed brilliantly: Mash Direct produces vegetable accompaniments for meals.
The name, conjured up over a family Sunday lunch, no longer fully reflects the dozens of dishes produced.
It began with traditional Ulster champ (mashed potato, scallions, milk and butter) and now there are gratins, bakes, croquettes and many more that are retailed in independents as well as giants such as Asda and Ocado.
It is a real family affair, with Martin and Tracy Hamilton in partnership with their sons Lance and Jack.
The offices for the farm and Mash Direct are situated up on a hillside in County Down and the fields run down to Strangford Lough. Martin Hamilton and his team manage 570ha of land on which they grow 60% of the vegetables they need. This acreage has grown rapidly since 2004 when they only had 93ha.
Raw material is clearly one of the business’ biggest requirements. Growing on the farm is pretty non-stop as new veg have to be planted weekly in order to maintain the product flow required.
Rotations are absolutely key. “Soil is a living structure and if it is intensively used, you will burn it out,” Martin says.
The 40% of vegetables not grown on Martin’s farms are sourced from other growers in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England.
They call this their “own grown, known grown” policy.
All dairy is sourced from Northern Irish farms and their fried products are made with rapeseed oil produced in the UK.
The whole brand, from packaging through to social media activity, has the “field to fork” message as its core, facilitating education about agriculture and the provenance of food.
Such a strong brand identity is a major asset to Mash Direct and something they plan to maintain. As part of this, they have rejected contracts to produce supermarket own-brand vegetable dishes.
Beyond the Northern Irish weather, one of the key challenges is keeping up with trends in food habits and retail.
The farm and diversification employ 170 members of staff
Mash Direct was founded in 2004
Products are retailed in Ocado and Asda
This is why they focus heavily on new product development.
They have a variety of products that are developed for specific markets and geographic areas, such as the “neeps and tatties” retailed in Scotland.
Jack says being face to face with people at events and shows is the quickest way to find out what they like, what they don’t and what else they want.
As well as ensuring the dishes are what customers want to eat, they need to ensure they are nutritious.
Most are gluten free, the range is also additive- and preservative- free, and the products use FSA traffic light labeling to display nutritional information.
Mash Direct had a difficult time two years ago when some waste water from vegetable washing, containing high levels of sugar and starch, ran into a local waterway resulting in a fish kill. Martin describes the accident as “nightmare upon nightmare”.
What the judges liked
Involvement in junior entrepreneurship programme
Collaboration with other farmers to source raw materials
Use of social media to promote British produce
Focus on new product development
The turnaround of a struggling family farm to create a successful agri-food business
The media jumped on this, but Martin held his hands up straight away and worked hard to resolve the problems and repopulate the waterway.
A wastewater treatment facility has been installed at the farm and water efficacies have been implemented.
The business is in the early stages of installing an anaerobic digestion plant on the farm, which will take the organic waste and generate upwards of 50% of their in-house electric and steam capacity.
Martin is passionate about supporting the community and a project he is very excited about is his involvement with the junior entrepreneur programme.
Led by Martin, this is the first launch of the initiative in Northern Ireland.
Currently, 324 pupils from County Down participate in a programme to encourage innovation, creativity and business vision in 10- and 11-year-olds.
It is good to see a business that has not only turned around the family farm and created lots of employment, but one that is so passionate about sustainability and social responsibility too.
Wildflower Turf, Hampshire
You may have seen some of James Hewetson-Brown’s wildflower turf before – it has featured in many films, such as War Horse and the Harry Potter series.
James is a second-generation farmer and it was his father David who started growing soil-less lawn turf in 1983 at their arable farm in Overton, Basingstoke.
James introduced the first wildflower seed to the mix in 2003 and 600sq m of the new wildflower turf was grown. Every year since, production has doubled, with approximately 90% of their customer base being trade.
283ha arable farm
Growing grass seeds, wheat and spring barley
Team of 12 across farm and diversification business
Wildflower turf growing began in 2003
Wildflower turf is soil-less, grown on composted green waste, with a plastic netting that allows it to be lifted.
Beyond the fields dedicated to turf production, now 20ha, immaculate crops are visible across the 263ha of arable land, split equally between grass seeds, winter wheat and spring barley.
The wildflower enterprise fits well with the farm because it is busier in the winter months when the arable side is quieter.
Including themselves, James and his wife Claire have a team of 12 working across the farm and diversification – six office staff and six production staff.
They hold weekly meetings to catch up on progress against goals and monitor costs. The consistent growth of the business is testament to the careful planning done.
Earlier this year, the business had a big win – it was awarded Wildflower Turf as a registered trademark, which means that no one else can use the phrase “Wildflower Turf” as a product name, only as a descriptive term.
Another big achievement was supplying the 2012 London Olympics. They provided 10,000sq m of wildflower turf for the Green and Pleasant Land in the opening ceremony, 12,000sq m for the athletes’ village and 50,000sq m for the transformation of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
James describes himself as quite “risk averse”, but says the cash injection from the Olympics enabled him to experiment in order to push the products and business forward.
What the judges liked
The biodiversity of the product
Consideration of environment across farm
The accreditation programme
Development of bespoke machinery
Impressive scalability of the business
James’ aim is to be the “leading supplier of wildflower products in the UK, and products that work”.
As part of that, he would like to set up additional production sites elsewhere and is also exploring the global market.
There are two difficulties with exporting the turf – its weight and limited shelflife, but the newest product, a seeding compound called Wildflower Earth, should be easier to export.
An accredited partners scheme (the business now has 250 partners) offers key customers the chance to get yet further care – including educational support about products and how to use them.
Among the benefits are increased customer satisfaction and loyalty, plus the development of brand ambassadors who promote the products.
The wildflower range naturally creates a biodiverse habitat supporting birds, mammals, bees and other invertebrate species.
The products have been used to bring environmental improvements in building projects, such as a green roof at Paultons Park – a theme park in Hampshire – and at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.
Natural habitat and environment is something that is important across the rest of the Hewetson-Brown’s farm.
The farm, which is in Higher Level Stewardship (HLS), has a reservoir – kept as an environmental lake as well as a lot of wide hedges and 25ha of woodland. As part of their HLS, they are also establishing wildflower field margins.
The use of solar energy from rooftop panels and rainwater harvesting help to control the operation’s carbon footprint. James is also trialling different types of turf netting to try to find a material that degrades as quickly as possible, but only once the turf has been laid and established.
Open days at the farm, consumer shows and social media are all very important in terms of promoting the products and getting customer feedback.
James also finds the face-to-face interaction during training days, open days and shows works as a way for him to teach more about agriculture to those from outside the farming industry.
Whether it is in person, at important landmarks or on the big screen, you get the feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more of James Hewetson-Brown and his turf in future.
Richard and Fraser Manners
John Manners, Northumberland
Richard and Fraser Manners have a wide range of impressive diversifications on their two farms in Northumberland.
At Battle Bridge Farm near Alnwick, the brothers run a combine breaking business, a haulage contracting business, have an HGV workshop and a shot-blasting and spray-painting facility.
At North Farm near Embleton, on the picturesque Northumberland coast, they have converted falling-down buildings into eight holiday cottages, with several more in planning, as well as leisure and laundry facilities, which will provide for guests and hopefully, in the future, the wider community.
Richard and Fraser also do contract baling and, in the winter months, contract snow ploughing and gritting for Northumberland Council.
16 full-time and five part-time employees
260ha arable, 60ha let out as grass parks
Contract baling 800ha
Snow ploughing and gritting for Northumberland Council
With all this to manage, it is fortunate that the brothers clearly work together very well. Richard heads up the combine parts side of the company, while Fraser leads the haulage business.
The combine breaking was started by their father John Manners in the 1970s and 1980s but has grown a lot since then. Richard purchases at least 70 combines a year and has more than 350 in the yard which covers 3.2ha.
Combine breaking and haulage sound like they have got potential for a messy yard, but there is no such thing at Battle Bridge.
It is organised, tidy and efficient. Every combine is broken down and sold off in pieces, or refurbished and sold as a whole.
All parts are delivered within the UK in less than 24 hours as they “fully understand the importance of a functioning combine during harvest time”.
The brothers are driven by providing a consistent quality service and maintaining paramount levels of customer satisfaction.
Trust is hugely important in all areas of their business, but particularly the combine recycling and haulage as a lot of their business is driven by word-of-mouth recommendations.
Through the online shop and good working relationships, they plan to strengthen their global sales, particularly to the Eastern European market.
The combine breaking fits very well with the haulage business. Manners Transport specialises in recovering agricultural machinery with its seven wagons and 12 specialist low-loading trailers including a bespoke trailer which will transport a combine and header at the same time.
Technology has been embraced in both of the businesses. Key examples of this are the online shop for the combine parts and the tracking devices on each of the haulage wagons, so that their locations can be shown on a screen in the office at all times.
Collaboration and integration of many aspects of their business is a real feature, which gives robustness and resilience to their business model.
What the judges liked
Approach to staff development and low staff turnover
Synergies between all areas of the business and fit with farming enterprises
Use of technology to reach the global market
Minimised risk due to nature of diversification
Collaboration with other businesses to maximise efficiency
It allows them to keep all staff busy throughout the year so they can reduce employee turnover and the need for seasonal workers.
When asked who the most important person in the business is, the brothers simultaneously reply “me” and “myself” then laughed before continuing to speak about how much they value their hardworking team.
The fact that their longest-serving employee has been with the business 42 years is no coincidence.
“I think a lot of farm staff and wagon lads don’t get a chance to better themselves,” says Fraser. As a result, they support the team with any professional development they want to pursue and give them as much responsibility as possible.
With so much machinery, health and safety is crucial, so the businesses have strict procedures in place and all staff are fully trained. Richard says that inspections are not uncommon but they have never had any trouble.
Across the two farms, the Manners’ have 260ha for production – 200ha of arable and 60ha of grass, which is let out as grass parks. On the arable side, they are growing wheat, barley and oilseed rape.
Despite all their other enterprises, the farm is still very important to both brothers with Richard overseeing crop rotations and management, and Fraser doing all the combining. Fraser says that their father John was a good farmer so the last thing he would ever want to hear is: “It wouldn’t be like that in their Dad’s day”.
It is perhaps not surprising that Fraser, when asked to sum up this multifaceted and diverse business, replies with just two words: “Going forward.”
Diversification Farmer of the Year is sponsored by AgriBank.
“The finalists have demonstrated outstanding levels of entrepreneurship and innovation in developing these businesses and all three are great examples of farm diversification, which AgriBank continues to support with innovative financing solutions.”
Frank Sekula, AgriBank