Luxury cosmetics is the latest diversification for pioneering one East Anglian farming family.
Trying something new is one way of putting your business ahead of the competition and it is something Sam and Clare Fairs aren’t afraid of doing.
Ten years after becoming the first in the UK to produce extra-virgin cold-press culinary oil from their rapeseed crop farmed in Suffolk, the family-run business is diversifying again with a range of luxury cosmetics.
Their Hillfarm crop is the key ingredient in a new Revitalising Hand Lotion and Rehydrating Hand Wash, which have both been developed with the help of a Suffolk cosmetics producer.
See also: Grow your own quinoa super crop
“Our job is to add value to the rapeseed that is grown on the farm,” explains Sam who runs the business with his wife Clare and father Alan. “Up to now we had done this by pressing the oil into a culinary product, however, cold pressed rapeseed oil has many uses besides being a great cooking or dressing oil.
“It’s exciting to be able to look at the analysis of the oil and its properties and then come up with another unexplored application for it and we’re thrilled the reaction to the cosmetic products has been so overwhelmingly positive.”
Alternatives like palm oil and animal products have long been used in the manufacture of cosmetics, but the properties of cold-pressed rapeseed oil have not really been used – until now.
“We know it is rich in vitamin E which is good for the skin, it is vegetarian and compared with commonly used palm oil it’s a lot kinder to the environment – so we produced a handwash and lotion to try to prove to the cosmetics industry that they should be using more of it,” Sam adds.
As well as vitamin E, rapeseed oil also has a high omega-3 and 6 content, making it an ideal ingredient for the lotions, which not only soothe, but nourish the skin, and according to Sam leave hands feeling soft and revived.
“Handwash and lotion were obvious products to develop, as it’s quite easy to get people to sample and try them,” he says.
“In the early stages, we examined what other hand creams and washes were out there on the market, and spoke to friends, family and associates to discover what they like from their hand creams.
“Then we produced lots of samples and a group of us went through quite a democratic process of selecting the one we liked best, and this seems to have worked as they’re both proving to be very popular.”
The handwash is clear and the lotion is cream, while both have a hint of yellow. Sam says they smell fresh and clean and are not heavily perfumed so will appeal to both men and women.
Those who have tried them have been impressed by the lotion’s smooth texture, and how quickly it is absorbed, without leaving the skin feeling greasy.
Each product is available in 250ml bottles, with a recommended retail price of £8.99, while a special presentation pack containing both will be launched in time for Christmas.
The cosmetics have been aimed at the mid-range market to reflect the quality of the raw ingredients. Behind the scenes the Hillfarm team has gone through a lengthy process developing the cosmetics, working with a local manufacturer to carry out rigorous testing to ensure they meet all the required EU standards. The packaging and labels have been sourced and designed locally, too, and once the range is in wider distribution the Fairs hope to introduce more products to the line.
But diversification isn’t new at Hillfarm, which grows 1,618ha of arable crops including rapeseed, wheat, barely, vining peas, borage and sugar beet.
Around 11 years ago Sam and his father felt the true value of the rapeseed crop – which today amounts to 465ha – wasn’t being achieved.
“Rapeseed is a fairly global crop which will grow well in many environments. Nothing makes Suffolk stand out as being any better or any worse than any other area.
“But Hillfarm soils are not easily workable so would not grow potatoes or intensive vegetable/salad crops and, being fairly flat, the combinable crops are the best for our land. Located in the East we have less rainfall than many areas and higher light levels and our water retentive clay soils suit the rainfall we have,” Sam explains.
“However, the different soil and microclimates across the UK where rapeseed is grown, and also the different husbandry techniques used by farmers, all give subtle differences to the flavour of the finished oil that is produced in different parts of the country.
“So in around 2004 we were looking for ways to diversify, and having heard about a friend taking rapeseed oil capsules for health reasons, we started to research the idea of cold pressing the rapeseed into premium cooking oil.
“Having grown rapeseed oil at Hillfarm for 45 years, we have used our own experiences to select the varieties that best suit the conditions here, and that produce an oil with the best colour and taste and that has the best nutritional composition.”
By cold pressing the oil without heat treatment, solvents or anti-frothing agents, Sam says the end result is an oil that is not only delicious, it’s also healthier, with only half the saturated fat content of olive oil – rapeseed oil contains just 6% saturated fat compared with olive oil at 14% and sunflower oil 10%.
“I think the main lesson we’ve learnt is that it’s not easy to diversify – it’s a long hard slog and success isn’t guaranteed. You also need to diversify into an area that’s new and doesn’t compete with your neighbour.”
The family’s first batch was launched at Suffolk County Show in 2005 and today it is sold nationally in Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, as well as regional farm shops priced £4.99 for a 500ml bottle.
“As well as a healthy alternative, rapeseed oil has a high burning point of 220C, making it great for roasting and frying as well as for using in dressings and even baking,” Sam explains.
“It can be used in everything from ciabatta and choc-chip muffins, to brownies and blackberry and apple cake; it’s a great way to make savoury and sweet treats that are lower in saturated fat but still taste divine.
“Its buttery flavour, golden colour and versatility have also made it popular with chefs including Mark Hix and Suffolk artisan bakers too.”
All the Fairs’ rapeseed continues to be grown, pressed and bottled on site near Halesworth, making it a fully traceable, sustainable, single-estate and non-GM culinary oil.
“As a family we’re firmly committed to farming sustainably – encouraging biodiversity. Bees and butterflies love the rapeseed which also provides a natural shelter for other wildlife. We are also trialling a mix of wild flower seeds grown alongside our oilseed rape crops that flower over a long season and are designed to encourage bees to thrive.
“Our factory is powered by 1ha of solar panels on the farm which generate electricity from the daylight every day of the year – Hillfarm produces all the energy needed to drive the presses that produce the oil and with some to spare to put into the National Grid.
“Our packaging is 100% recyclable and we’re also able to use all of the waste products for the rapeseed as nutritional animal feed.”
And it doesn’t end there – other products based on the cold-pressed rapeseed oil include farmhouse and garlic mayonnaises.
The Fairs are certainly getting something right – demand for the cold pressed oil has been increasing year on year and the business employs four full-time and four part-time staff, while the process to press and bottle the oil has been mechanised, too.
This year the company will produce more than 140 times more oil than in its first year, requiring rapeseed covering an area about the size of 600 football pitches.
“I think the main lesson we’ve learnt is that it’s not easy to diversify – it’s a long hard slog and success isn’t guaranteed. You also need to diversify into an area that’s new and doesn’t compete with your neighbour.
“There are a lot of people who come along and copy your good ideas which is sometimes very flattering. But this makes it important to continually develop new ideas and bring new products to the market.
“Every day we’re trying to come up with something a bit different – but it’s all about which idea keeps coming back to the top of the list.”