Farm businesses that view people as a valuable asset are the ones that are built to last. Jane King had the privilege of meeting three distinct employers with one big achievement in common – they are all growing fast by creating great places to work
Capestone Organic Poultry, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire
Capestone Organic Poultry has a problem most other businesses would break a leg to have. It has increased its turnover by 50% in just 18 months and is growing so fast that it has to turn new customers away.
Managing director Justin Scale has a rather laid-back approach to his phenomenal success. His goal now is to consolidate and the development of his workforce is uppermost in his mind.
Justin is the fifth-generation farmer at this 365ha fully integrated poultry farm, which has operated at Walwyns Castle in the beautiful Pembrokeshire Coast National Park since 1826. The business started in turkeys, but is now one of the largest privately owned poultry operations sourcing chicks from UK hatcheries and brooding, growing and processing on site.
Capestone is the main organic chicken supplier to Marks & Spencer, a major supplier to the booming organic baby food market, as well as an extensive exporter. Poultry is not the only interest these days, as 10 years ago the business expanded into beef, lamb, pork and even salmon.
The farm employs 37 staff while the processing side employs more than 100 people. Capestone produces on a big scale – more than 25,000 organic and free-range chickens a week, as well as up to 75,000 premium Christmas turkeys. Other customers include London food halls.
- Turnover of £12m and staffing bill £2.5m
- An integrated organic poultry business – brooding, growing and processing
- Customers include M&S, London food halls and export trade
Justin’s farm staff are multi-skilled and responsible for the general maintenance of the farm, the livestock and the environment. Former dairy farmer Alan Wheatley joined the farm last December and is now the manager, ensuring the highest standards are maintained in animal welfare and products. This means a meticulous approach to staff recruitment, training, development and health and safety.
Pembrokeshire County Council’s employment advisers work with Capestone to recruit local, unemployed workers to the business.
Childcare vouchers are available to employees with families and discounts offered to the local leisure centre. Free English classes are given for overseas workers.
All new starters are offered a buddy to ease them into the business in the early days. Apprenticeships are provided in team leading, cleaning and support services and warehouse and dispatch.
All workers get 28 days holiday, including farm staff. Bonuses are paid on the farm for reliability and enthusiasm and absence recording is taken seriously.
Staff turnover on the farm is low. M&S expects Justin to be a firm but fair employer and to retain staff for a reasonable amount of time. The retailer monitors his staff turnover as it views a loss of employees as evidence of dissatisfaction with the business.
The farm was pretty small when Justin left college and went into industry. He did not get on well with his father and so avoided the farm, choosing to work in the refineries, where he eventually got promoted to supervisor.
“I learned a lot about leadership doing that”, he says. “I always employ people brighter than me who have the skills I don’t.”
Two key managers making a difference are Lydia Clark, the new HR manager who joined in March, and Emily Davies, marketing and sustainability manager, who joined three years ago. The appointment of Lydia is making it easier for Justin to introduce more formality to the people management strategy at Capestone. She is also coming up with new ways to recruit highly technical staff to the site in Pembrokeshire. At times, the business has had to pay large salaries to attract the right people to the area.
Emily Davies drives most of Capestone’s community engagement activities, as she is a science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) ambassador in schools.
A big part of the Capestone philosophy is to inspire young people about the link between food and farming while improving the local environment on the national park. Justin is enthusiastic about the business supporting careers events and agricultural shows in the region. Capestone has its own kids’ club, which is an online initiative designed to bring parents and children together to work through food and farming tasks, discuss and increase awareness about agro-issues.
As the business has expanded so fast, Justin is keen not to take on any more customers and to form deeper relationships with existing ones. He sees the next year as one where he will consolidate and focus on delivering the best for clients, developing his team and managing costs. In the long run, he would like to recruit more of the right people into senior-level positions.
LE Barnes & Sons, Roxhill Manor Farm, Marston Moretyne, Bedfordshire
Looking after staff means five-star treatment at harvest time and all year round for LE Barnes & Son, the family farming and contracting business at Roxhill Manor Farm, Marston Moretyne, Bedfordshire.
Robert Barnes, managing director and owner, and his wife Jules, work tirelessly to ensure employees are well fed and cared for to retain good people and help them deliver their best performance.
During harvest, traditions take on a new meaning, particularly for casual staff, who receive top-notch accommodation, have all their washing done and get three home-prepared meals every day.
Meals are taken to the field piping hot, and the menus would give any restaurant a run for its money. On the day of judging, 18 staff were served a lunch of roast chicken, crispy bacon, mayo and salad and for dinner they had chilli con carne with rice followed by white chocolate cheesecake. It is therefore no surprise that harvest jobs do not have to be advertised, as staff return year after year.
This approach is all about creating a working culture that is ideal for a fast-paced arable operation, which includes growing combinable crops on 360ha at home and 1,200ha for others, plus integral grain lab testing, storage, drying and haulage.
The business operates with a no-till and controlled traffic policy. Robert is passionate about innovating, both in his farming practices and in the way he recruits, trains and motivates his staff.
- Farming and contracting with integral grain lab testing, storage, drying and haulage
- Turnover of about £3m and staff of 20-22
- 360ha of own land and 1,200ha contracted land
- Growing wheat, oilseed rape, linseed and beans
Customer feedback on staff
“My belief is that if you want a great business, you can only expect staff to do what you would do yourself,” he says. “I quantify the benefit of our people strategy here by the feedback I get from my customers, who tell me my guys know what they are talking about. The way my staff conduct themselves when they get on farm makes me very proud.”
Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, with achievable goals set and monitored through staff appraisals. The company’s vision is shared with employees in a post-harvest review and everyone contributes views and ideas.
Regular meetings are held with contracting clients to see how they can improve or provide new services. Staff are encouraged to report on any client dissatisfaction or queries and they endeavour to respond within 48 hours. Clients feel confident to talk directly to staff, who are empowered and given the authority to resolve issues.
The whole operation has evolved significantly in the past two years and in 2013 new roles and responsibilities were set out to ensure the strategic development of the business. These included the key job of arable manager, held by Stuart Beardsell, who joined the business four-and-half years ago, having been employed as a sprayer operator elsewhere. Stuart is developing as a manager and has visibility on the farm financials.
Robert feels confident that the team he now has in place will serve him well for the foreseeable future. His longest-serving team member is Joyce Shrubbs, affectionately known by everyone as Mrs Shrubbs, who has remarkably been with the farm for almost 70 years on the administration side.
Personal training programmes are devised for every individual to help them achieve their full potential. Alongside external training, the company also works with a consultancy to deliver continual best practice around health and safety.
Robert’s passion for sustainable farming shines through everything he does, including supporting community groups and sharing best practice.
The Barnes family started farming at Marston Moretyne 75 years ago under the stewardship of Robert’s grandfather, Leonard Edward Barnes, and then his father Anthony – hence the initials in LE Barnes & Sons. Robert has two children, Harry and Eleanor, and continues to invest to build a future for the next generation. He has spent £800,000 in the past few years on grain storage, testing, weighing and grading facilities.
The Pink Pig Farm, Home Hall, Scunthorpe
A business that strives to be the best has to recruit talented people to help it get there and that’s exactly what Sally and Andrew Jackson are doing at the Pink Pig Farm.
This working mixed farm employs two people, plus there is a farm shop, a restaurant, a farm park, indoor play barn and café providing jobs for another 34 people. The business includes a butchery and delicatessen, and it grows 80% of the produce sold in the shop.
The Jacksons aim to offer the best farm attraction in Lincolnshire, serving quality local food, and they view their people management policies as crucial to this goal.
Managers are employed for each department, setting their own weekly targets, and they run their own teams of between three and 13 people. Sales, customer numbers, wastage and staff performances are compared at weekly manager meetings so everyone is clear what progress is being made.
Sally focuses on the farm attraction side of the business at Home Hall, while Andrew runs the arable operation on another farm on better land near the Humber Bridge.
There have been tough times for the couple, particularly keeping the diversification afloat during a recession. The farm shop has proved tricky to sustain due to its location.
- A mixed farm and farm attraction including a shop, restaurant, farm park and play barn
- 320ha in total
- 34 staff – 16 full-time equivalents
Finding the right people
Scunthorpe has many hard-working people, but sometimes the standard of education or experience for customer service work is lacking.
Sally advertises jobs locally first, but is prepared to go further afield to recruit for more specialised roles. She also goes straight to universities and colleges to get recommendations from lecturers about their star students.
Sally is incredibly resourceful in gathering ideas to further the business, learning from other small enterprises, reading business books and listening to entrepreneur speakers at events.
She carried out a staff survey to find out what motivates her team and discovered that money was not the main driver for most of them. Job security, satisfaction and the work environment were regarded as far more important to retaining good employees.
The Pink Pig team is encouraged to visit other farm shops and attractions and to attend conferences and training events to pick up fresh ideas and bring them back.
Sally is chairman of Farma, the farm attractions association, and so has access to a wonderful network of expertise all around the country. Her staff has benefited from cheese and deli training as well as courses in handling chainsaws, spraying, vermin control, trailer towing, food hygiene and first aid.
An independent HR specialist supports Sally on all personnel issues with the team for a small fee, but her own leadership is fundamental to the smooth running of the operation.
“Employers tend to employ people like themselves and this is a big mistake,” says Sally. “You need to find staff who complement you and fill your gaps in experience, knowledge or character.”
Get the best out of employees
Psychometric testing has been carried out when recruiting new staff to see how they will fit in with the team and provide an insight into how to get the best out of them once employed.
Sally has developed simple screening protocols to be used by the line managers when interviewing candidates to help them identify positive, upbeat people.
All new recruits get a walk around the whole site when they start, plus an induction explaining what is expected of them.
They are all allocated a buddy to support them in the early days and given a Pig Pink Handbook as guidance.
Sally pinched an approach from the retailer John Lewis for appraising staff. It enables clarity on what she wants them to do in the job, sets out the minimum requirements and highlights what behaviours would exceed expectations.
The biggest game-changer has been the investment and building of the play barn, which cost £240,000 and was opened in February. Above the door a banner invites visitors in with the message: “Free-range home-made happiness”. The development has introduced new customers to the whole farm attraction and they are averaging a weekly income of £6,500.
Feedback from customers has been extremely positive about the play equipment and the positive way staff are interacting with families.
Other investments in recent years include installing solar energy and creating a staff relaxation room. In total, the couple have invested £300,000 in the business over the past five years.
“It’s incredibly important that we cherish and nurture the talented people working within some fantastic and imaginative farm businesses. We are delighted to be championing that
Find out more about the 2014 Farmers Weekly Awards