Countrywide Farmers announced it had its best-ever financial year last year, after strong performance across all three agriculture, energy and retail sectors of the business.

Overall sales were up 18% to £190.7m, while operating profit rose from £0.3m to £1.8m, Countrwide’s John Hardman told Farmers Weekly.

Arable sales increased to £24.2m, with the seed business performing particularly well after the decision to close its seed plant and outsource all cereal and grass seed processing to Masstock. “This has allowed us to release capital to invest in people and marketing.”

Turnover from feed sales was up 15%, mainly from higher sales of blends and straights, as farmers looked for cheaper alternatives to compounds, he added. “Luckily we bought feed early last year before prices really took off.”

But Mr Hardman said it would be difficult to repeat the agri-business performance next year. “We’re already seeing very high prices for nearly all inputs and, unfortunately, cereal prices have gone down and there could be pressure on milk prices. I can’t believe UK farming will be as profitable in the next 12 months as it has been in the year just gone – that makes it harder for us.”

On the retail side, sales were up 10.9% to £65m and the outlook was more promising, Mr Hardman said. Five new country stores opened last year to take the firm’s total to 45, more than any other company in the UK. “Considering what’s happening on the high street, we’re very pleased with this performance. We’ve got a high proportion of customers with high disposable income, so may be cushioned from the credit crunch.”

He said the firm had ambitious expansion plans and hoped a target of 5-10 new stores a year would be possible.

The value of sales from the energy side of the business increased by over 50% last year, from £31 to £45m, largely driven by commodity price inflation. But actual volumes sold were also up – 21% for liquid fuel and 11% for gas. “A lot of that was gained from competitors, either on the basis of price or service.”