FREE-RANGE FOR BOG AMBITION; BY SAM FORTESCUE

FARMING RUNS in Doug Wanstall’s blood. He was the third generation to take on Bank Farm near Ashford in Kent, which was a mixed operation running beef, sheep and arable units before he began in 1996.

But after studying at Shuttleworth Agricultural College he got down to business, not out of sentiment, but because he saw a chance in the farm.

The foundations were there, as Mr Wanstall’s father and uncle had steadily acquired land. “They gave us the building blocks for expansion, and what they did was probably more important than a lot of what has followed,” he says. “But we had gone through the glory years of 1994-97 and I realised that if three families were going to survive off this business, then it had to change.”

 Looking for a commercial opening away from European subsidies, Mr Wanstall decided that he had to build on the strengths of the farm’s existing set-up, so he established a 12,000-bird free-range shed for egg production. “The essential ingredient was that free-range eggs were easy to add value to. It was something that we could take further than just sending them off to a packer.”

Following this principle, he bought egg packer and distributor Portable Eggs in 1999. “Taking over that business gave us the infrastructure to move up a gear. At that stage we stopped producing for the packer and did all our own eggs ourselves, buying in from other producers as well. We have got 20,000 hens now, and we sell eggs from the equivalent of about 45,000 hens.”

In order to market the eggs, Bank Farm started to approach cafs and restaurants in south-east England. The network that grew up has been key in expanding the range of activities in the past four years.

“Although eggs are still a core line, we have now diversified that business into selling everything from game and meats, fresh vegetables, jams, chutneys, pickles, apple juices and water direct from the producer. What we realised was that many retailers wanted to sell local produce, but did not want a whole raft of producers going into them with their individual products.”

On the other hand, small, local producers who could not afford to market and distribute their own produce benefit from the economies of scale of Mr Wanstall”s business. He sells food hampers, for instance, made up of numerous local products, and sold either direct to customers through his two farm shops, or wholesaled to independent retailers.

In the past two years he has built a £330,000 ready meal factory and has added chip production and fresh, packed vegetables to the portfolio. Ever looking to add value, he plans to grow the 2000t of potatoes consumed each year by the factory and farm shops. “That is a good start to a potato enterprise, especially when the farm has got good silty, sandy land and irrigation which we currently don’t use.” He is also looking at growing asparagus, because supplies have to come from the midlands.

But until recently, the business was haemorrhaging cash, and it is only in the past 12 months that it has slipped into the black on a turnover of £3m. “We had two hard years when we’d built this infrastructure and the sales were not coming in quickly enough. It was quite a painful process, and cash became tight with DEFRA not coughing up as quickly as we had hoped.

 “But that is turning round quite rapidly now. A lot of it is critical mass, but also it was us building the infrastructure quicker than the sales. We had some expensive overheads which we have now either culled or streamlined.”

Mr Wanstall admits that he did not adequately research some of his ideas, and urges entrepreneurs not to skip this vital stage. But he has been lucky, as demand has quickened in the past year or so for locally produced and traceable food. Shop sales are up 26% on the year, and turnover on the wholesale business is growing by 30-35% annually; figures that should be boosted by the ready meal division.

Nonetheless, he plans a more cautious strategy for future growth, building the product range taken by each individual customer, rather than increasing client numbers. He shrugs off the bad years. “There have been stages where you think: I wish I had a nine-to-five job”,” he says.

“But I’ve enjoyed what we’ve done. We have now got the business where we want it. We have an infrastructure and a team that works well, and that is the launchpad for turning the turnover into a major profit.”

ut he reckons the industry must continue to nurture innovation if it is to draw in young farmers. “

Farmers who farm because it is what they have always done are a dying breed, and, for the good of the industry, they should be. But young people will only come if there is something exciting for them. CAP reforms are certainly heading in the right direction, but it’s up to the individual to make it exciting, and I think that is what we have done here.”