12 May 2001

All from a farm near you

Its not a croissant; its not a bun: its both. The new Berkshire Buttery is giving shoppers a taste for local farm food. In the first of a new series, Gilly Johnson samples the potential for adding value to farm produce

A PREMIUM sample of milling wheat could sell for anything up to £90/t ex-farm today. Sounds good, doesnt it? But prepare for a shock. Turn that grain into a bakery product, and its worth a staggering £5,000/t – or more.

Of course, this figure includes costs for milling, baking, delivery, marketing and so on. But even allowing for the expense of production, the potential margin on value-added products is tempting enough to whet the most jaded appetite.

Alastair Jeffrey of Yattendon Estate, Berkshire, is attempting to bridge the gap between selling wheat to a merchant, and selling premium bakery items to consumers. Its a brave venture. Developing new products and a brand name from scratch has taken "significant" investment; for commercial reasons Mr Jeffrey cant reveal exactly how much.

But with 1,600ha of combinable crops as well as other land supporting two dairy herds, a Christmas tree enterprise and other linked operations, his business is big enough to bear the start-up costs. The story starts back in autumn 1999. "Agricultural incomes are now controlled by Brussels. We wanted to take control of another income stream ourselves. Adding value to our own produce was the logical answer."

The board of directors, under Lord Iliffe, approved the venture. The Yattendon team then entered a very different world from that of simply growing crops. First step was market research, to identify what products would go down well with consumers. This is one hurdle where many amateurs fail. But Mr Jeffrey didnt rely on a hunch, or "gut feel", but called in the professionals: the marketing consultants. Two companies were employed: FJD Creative Marketing and Design, a mainstream marketing business, and the Royal Agricultural College Enterprises, which has specialist expertise in the agricultural sector.

Historically, the farm has been able to grow consistently good samples of milling wheat. "Our yield performance is not up there with the best, but quality is good."

So it made sense to exploit the farms milling wheats as the basis for adding value. By December 1999, it was concluded that the best opportunities lay in ready-to-bake bread. Other avenues were explored, including products which used the farms own milk; pork or ham from its pig businesses, or beef. But cereals came top, and of these, bread wheat looked to be the most profitable, above breakfast cereals or dog food.

The farms kitchen was set to work testing a range of different bakery products – with technical help from the milling and baking experts at the Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association. "It was hell for a while," admits Mr Jeffrey. "We had a lot of adventures – and burnt offerings – before we arrived at a range of six products that we were happy with."

Three were chosen as the front runners: a croissant-type roll, called the Berkshire Buttery, and two bread rolls: the Country Cob and an Olive Roll. All are part-baked so require a few minutes in the oven to finish off at home.

These were test marketed in local delicatessens just before Christmas. The response was encouraging. "They sold well. But we did find it was difficult to maintain quality with the Country Cobs, so for the present we are focusing on the other two."

Devising a brand was another big challenge. Once again, Mr Jeffrey went to the specialists. "We called in a London firm to help us. We had imagined that they would invent a fancy non-farming brand name, but they advised us to stay with the farms identity, and go with Yattendon Estate as our brand."

A logo has been drawn up which includes the Yattendon Estate motto: Responsible English farming. Mr Jeffrey is glad this is included. "We are proud of how we operate here – were in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, were planting many hedges and we care for the environment."

Upmarket

Each product has its own label which includes the Yattendon Estate branding. The imagery is upmarket and sophisticated, which suits the target audience of discriminating shoppers. Products are packaged and labelled at the bakery.

Milling wheat is stored at Home Farm in a state-of-the-art store, to ensure quality can be preserved. Then flour is milled by a local family firm: Clarkes of Wantage. It is then baked by Husseys Bakery, another family firm near Thatcham. "We knew it would be a mistake to try and do milling or baking ourselves. But we wanted to use local companies."

Marketing is the responsibility of Yattendon Estate. Ironically, French national Eve-Maria Loisel has been given the task of selling the Berkshire Buttery croissant look-alike. UK delicatessens and supermarkets are the first target, but eventually she hopes to break into the French market, overcoming any "coals-to-Newcastle" reluctance.

For the past two months, the Berkshire Butteries and Olive Rolls have been sold through about 27 local outlets, delivered from the farm once a week at present. Deliveries will be more frequent as sales increase.

Berkshire Butteries retail at £1.59 for a pack of four. "Repeat orders are demonstrating that we have the principle about right," says Mr Jeffrey. A supermarket contract is now being negotiated, which he hopes will take sales to the next level – without jeopardising the delicatessen market.

He is hoping to break even on cash flow by this autumn. "Were on track so far." Eight new bakery products are in the pipeline, and four of these should be on sale in July.

Last but not least is how the farm can produce consistent supplies of quality grain. This is the responsibility of Peter King, arable manager. The rotation revolves around first wheats. Oilseed rape has been jettisoned in favour of rotational set-aside and pulse crops.

The preferred wheat varieties for the flour blend are milling types Malacca – "a good commercial yielder" – and Hereward: "a specialist breadwheat but lower yielding". Clare is being used as an early entry variety; this biscuit variety is not suitable for bread flour and so is not included in the Yattendon grist. It will be phased out in favour of a milling spring wheat, drilled in the late autumn.

It can be tricky achieving the right protein with Malacca, says Mr King; this year he is using fertiliser company Kemiras Loris system to fine-tune N planning. Extra N is applied late to lift proteins to the 13% mark. Care is taken to preserve hagberg, and specific weight. The farm is signed up to as an ACCS and full traceability is assured. "This is very important to us as a food producer," says Mr Jeffrey.

"At the moment were milling 300t of flour – our ultimate objective is to use all 6,000t of our wheat." So watch out for those Berkshire Butteries in a shop near you…