The Farmers Weekly Awards 2017 finalists have been announced and the judges have visited each of the finalists for a three-hour interview and tour.

All three businesses shortlisted for 2017 Farmers Weekly Awards Diversification Farmer of the Year demonstrate a sound knowledge of their customers and hunger for further growth in their respective markets. 

See also: Book you table for the Farmers Weekly Awards 2017 night

The 2017 Diversification Farmer of the Year finalists are:

  • Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore, Fen Farm Dairy, Suffolk
  • Simon and Jackie McCreery, Yester Farm Dairies, East Lothian
  • The Nicholson family, Cannon Hall Farm, East Yorkshire

The judges: 

  • Felicity and John Richards, 2016 Diversification Farmer of the Year
  • Philip Case, Farmers Weekly
  • Michael Mack, independent judge

Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore, Fen Farm Dairy, Suffolk

Dulcie and Jonny Crickmore stand on their farm

Dulcie and Jonny Crickmore © Tim Scrivener

The team

Farm facts

  • 384ha (half owned, half rented)
  • Herd of 300 cows, 40% Montbelliarde, 30% Montbelliarde cross, 30% British Friesian/Brown Swiss
  • Montbelliarde cows produce 7,500 litres/year of milk
  • Total cheese production (2016) – 26t
  • Raw milk sold direct makes profit of 50p-£2.50/litre

Poor milk prices prompted third-generation dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore and his wife Dulcie to diversify into selling raw milk from the farmgate and artisan cheesemaking.

They have built a small, but highly motivated team comprising five full-time and six part-time jobs across the livestock unit.

Jonny and Dulcie are inspirational leaders who receive monthly coaching through ActionCoach to develop their business and human resources skills. Staff are offered away days and training opportunities wherever possible.

Customer awareness

Buoyed by the success of their raw milk sales, the couple looked to expand. They identified a gap in the market for unpasteurised Brie and spent two years researching the business potential and visiting other cheesemakers.

Advice from French consultant Ivan Larcher led them to purchase a herd of Montbelliarde cows from eastern France to provide the rich milk perfect for cheesemaking. Meanwhile a 30% Leader/Rural Development Programme for England grant helped them convert a dilapidated barn into an artisan cheesemaking facility.

Their Baron Bigod Brie, named after the 12th-century Earl of Norfolk, has found the top end of the market. As well as selling through farmers’ markets and the farm website, it is stocked in Harrods and served to British Airways first-class passengers. Large orders have been taken for both Royal Ascot and Wimbledon this summer.

The couple certainly know how to reach their customers. They have featured in The Sunday Times as well as on Countryfile and the BBC’s Farming Today.

 

Innovation and leadership

The Crickmore family was the first in the UK to install a raw milk vending machine on farm.

Customers can buy raw milk from the machine using a top-up card. The milk is also distributed locally on milkrounds and nationally via the online shop.

Jonny and Dulcie are helping others to sell milk from the farmgate, too, offering free advice as UK representatives for DF Italia Milk Vending Machines.

Their cheese is unique in the UK, and the Crickmores have now started to make the country’s only raw cultured farmhouse butter.

Meanwhile, Jonny, who is a board member of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, is helping the Food Standards Agency champion farmhouse cheese and raw milk.

The judges liked

  • Researched the market and produced a cheese that commands a premium price
  • Detailed knowledge of the whole business
  • Great listeners open to new ideas
  • First-class communicators
  • Solid grasp of business figures
  • Attractive branding
“This business is built around creating amazing produce; to achieve this you need to listen to experts, focus on detail and understand your marketplace. By doing so, Jonny and Dulcie have built a robust farm and dairy business which makes some wonderful cheese.”

Simon and Jackie McCreery Yester Farm Dairies, East Lothian

Simon and Jackie McCreery

Simon and Jackie McCreery © Angus Findlay

The team

Farm facts

  • Dairy and arable enterprise
  • Herd of 400 Holstein-Friesians
  • Flying-herd model and three-times-a-day milking
  • 10,700 litres a cow a year at 3.9% butterfat and 3.34% protein
  • Supplying to food service and retailers
  • 32 employees all of whom are permanent
  • 162ha owned, 61ha rented

Husband and wife Simon and Jackie McCreery run Yester Farm Dairies, managing a herd and making milk, cream, soft cheeses and cultured creams on-site.

Thirty-two people are employed full time across both businesses, which greatly benefits the local area where the family-run farm is one of just two remaining dairy farms in East Lothian.

Simon and Jackie have an excellent understanding of what motivates their staff and how to support them. Annual events include a summer barbecue and Christmas party.

Staff have also contributed ideas to get the wider community involved, including farm visits for schoolchildren, veterinary and agricultural students, and these have been adopted within the business.

Customer awareness

The McCreerys’ range of products include cottage cheese, soft cheeses, mozzarella, crème fraîche, set soured cream and natural yoghurt, sold under the Yester Farm Dairies branding.

About 30 wholesalers already buy the cheese and Simon and Jackie have recently agreed a listing with one major retailer and are in talks with another.

The couple are quick to adapt to the changing marketplace. For example, after the Brexit vote, exchange rate fluctuations meant it was cheaper to buy British than Italian mozzarella. So they started producing a Scottish artisan version, fior di latte, which is often chosen by retailers over more expensive imports.

All Yester products are branded with the Saltire, and Simon and Jackie believe the clear, positive labelling of Scottish provenance has helped increase local sales.

The next stage is to grow the product range and move into a UK-wide market, possibly with Union flag branding.

 

Innovation and leadership

The hard cheese market is very competitive, so the McCreerys looked instead at producing artisan soft cheeses with the “farm to fridge” slogan as their selling point

In 2015, they converted a grain shed into a state-of-the-art cheese factory. Funding came from Scottish Enterprise and local authority grants, as well as the major portion from bank borrowing.

Simon and Jackie are working hard to rekindle the soft cheese market with high-value products.

“The whole point of it is to be making our own product,” says Jackie. “We are farmers, first and foremost. But people buy a product with a story behind it.”

The judges liked

  •  Strong connection to core agriculture
  • Good family engagement across the business
  • Adaptable to market demands
  • Strong employer of local people
  • Made significant headway in service sector
  • Constant growth and development
The McCreerys showcase an entrepreneurial attitude with hard work and a focus on detail which has created a successful diversification. Staff have a real connection to the business and share the family’s vision.

The Nicholson family, Cannon Hall Farm, south Yorkshire

Family affair: Roger Nicholson (second from right) with his sons (left to right) David, Richard and Robert

Family affair: Roger Nicholson (second from right) with his sons (left to right) David, Richard and Robert © Jim Varney

The team

Farm facts

  • Strong family and staff involvement
  • Well future-proofed design
  • Addressed underlying health and safety risks to business
  • Great awareness of customers
  • Open 364 days a year
  • Real farming Facebook engagement

A warm welcome is reserved for everyone who visits Cannon Hall Farm from its friendly team of 250.

Owned by Roger Nicholson, his wife Cynthia and their three sons, Richard, Robert and David, the business has grown into one of the UK’s biggest working farm attractions.

The Nicholsons, who are heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the farm, have championed expertise in the industry.

They employ and train good people with a strong customer focus.

The staff go the extra mile to create a memorable day for visitors. This includes everyone from the entrance to the restaurants, farm shop and attractions.

The farm welcomes more than 20,000 schoolchildren each year. They are offered lively and engaging guided tours to learn about how food is produced.

Customer awareness

There is something for everybody at Cannon Hall, from play areas for children to fine dining for all in the two restaurants, which serve up tasty meat produced on the farm.

The site has been engineered to accommodate pushchairs and ensure access for disabled visitors.

More than half a million people visit Cannon Hall Farm each year. There is significant customer loyalty – repeat visitors are likely to return eight to 10 times a year.

The owners place great emphasis on price sensitivity. Discounted admission fees are offered during quieter times, such as January, and after 3.30pm to attract families with schoolchildren.

 

Innovation and leadership

Farmers Roger, David and Robert are always thinking of ways to reach out to customers beyond the farm gate. They are social media savvy, and have adopted Facebook Live to promote their business, as well as a general understanding of farming, to the public. Many thousands have viewed the broadcasts – including daily coverage of the lambing season – and the response has been phenomenal.

From June 5-11 June, Cannon Hall Farm’s Facebook outperformed Chester Zoo’s, with more than 2.3 million people viewing content and 490,157 engagements – clicks, likes, shares and comments – posted.

The Nicholsons are also very active on Twitter and Instagram, helping to inspire yet more visitors throughout the year.

Earlier this month, Cannon Hall launched its own fruit and veg box scheme, building on the success of its farm shop. Customers can order online, via email or over the phone for a doorstep delivery.