• Sponsored by James Miles-Hobbs
  • WINNER: Caroline and William Alexander, The Hop Shop, Kent

A robbery on their farm more than 20 years ago first inspired Caroline and William Alexander to begin diversifying their arable and beef business.

The couple changed direction after someone stole hop bines from their 450ha enterprise in Kent.

Realising their unusual crop had value, the Alexanders began diversifying their business by drying hop bines and selling them for decorative purposes.

At the same time, William and Caroline formed a co-operative with other hop growers to investigate alternative crops. “We identified essential oils as a natural product as manufacturers were looking for natural ingredients so we saw that as a growing market,” says Caroline.

As part of a co-operative with 20 other hop growers, the couple ran trials of plants for natural ingredients such as rosemary and camomile. They soon realised their fields were perfect for lavender.

“We ran two acres and went to France to look at what they were doing, bought a machine for the harvesting and it’s gone on from there,” Caroline adds.

“Once we had produced our range of oils we could diversify the shop. We sell it as an aromatherapy product, but also as an ingredient in other products such as soaps.”

The pair realised the lavender market was very competitive and could not support the farm long-term, so they added value to their crop by working with local companies to produce artisan products such as lavender ice creams, jams and biscuits.

The move was so unusual that it attracted widespread media attention and global interest. Their essences and oils are used in several Michelin-starred hotels in London.

But the greatest draw to the farm is the field of lavender which can be seen from the main commuter railway line to London and the main road.

Fours years ago the couple began holding lavender festivals in the fields, charging people to come on tours of the fields and distilleries. Tickets for this year’s festival sold out months ahead.

Adding to the list of businesses, the Alexanders also rent out farm buildings as workshops and farmhouses.

They also run a successful beef enterprise, taking youngstock from a family dairy unit and sold as finished cattle to a local wholesale butcher who supplies local shops and restaurants.

For many, having so many successful enterprises on the go at once would be a daunting prospect, but the couple’s business is a careful balancing act they have perfected over two decades.

Alexanders-main

FARM FACTS

  • 1100 acres
  • Lucrative hop and alternative crop grower
  • Combinable crops including wheat, barley, oilseed rape
  • 50 acres in environmental stewardship

WHAT MAKES THEM A WINNER?

  • Huge attention to brand development
  • Passion for the surrounding environment
  • Remain close to core farming practices
  • Lucrative supplier of essential oils in a global market

SPONSOR’S VIEW

  • A dynamic husband and wife talent who really listen to their market, having developed one diversification during the 1990s only to find when fashions changed, they had to reinvent another – and all still based on taking farm products while listening to their customers. A real farm business for the future. James Miles-Hobbs, James Miles-Hobbs

INDEPENDENT JUDGE

  • I was impressed by the way the Alexanders have applied themselves to each new venture. When they introduced lavender as a niche crop, they added value by distilling it themselves into oil, bringing pleasure to a wider customer base. Peter Pragg