Three very different ventures challenged the judges visiting our finalists for the 2012 Farmers Weekly Diversification Farmer of the Year Award. However, what those businesses share includes enthusiasm, determination and the ability to successfully pursue projects which have moved their businesses forward in very challenging times. Johann Tasker reports on what on what one of those shortlisted for the title, Andrew Francis, is doing to make his business stand out.
Farm manager Andrew Francis has helped build a sought-after food and farming brand around the 9100ha (22,500-acre) Elveden Estate, benefiting other producers as well as the home farm.
Set in the heart of East Anglia on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, the estate devotes approximately 10,000 acres to farming, 7,000 acres to forestry and 3,500 acres to conservation. It operates as a standalone business, with the farm team employing up to 40 people at peak times.
Arable enterprises include combinable crops and root vegetables. Diversification to generate income streams outside these conventional farming activities has helped the estate mitigate its exposure to fluctuating commodity prices.
“Here at Elveden, our farming ethos is one driven by sustainability,” explains Mr Francis. “Our business is based very much around the appliance of science to best practice, while maintaining our traditional landscape and enhancing the environment we work in.”
In recent years, this has seen Elveden initiate various diversification opportunities which are an increasingly important revenue source. They have improved the economic viability of the farm business and reduced dependence on profits from primary agricultural commodities.
Projects include domestic and corporate Christmas trees, pre-grown instant hedging, a pub with bed and breakfast accommodation, an Elveden kitchen garden supplying chefs and catering establishments, and a courtyard that includes a food hall and restaurant.
Diversification – and the creation of Elveden brands to market these enterprises – has seen the estate become a destination for tourists and food lovers. It has led to the employment of a further 95 local people, with more casual staff at peak times.
“Here at Elveden, our farming ethos is one driven by sustainability. Our business is based very much around the appliance of science to best practice, while maintaining our traditional landscape and enhancing the environment we work in.”
Farming, though, remains the core enterprise. Free-draining sandy soils with flints over a chalky till enable the specialist production of potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips – as well as combinable crops such as rye, malting barley and feed wheat.
The Elveden Courtyard is now five years old. Including a cafe restaurant, food hall and lifestyle shops, it was created to provide customers with the finest East Anglian produce and serves locally produced artisan products from other farms as well as the estate.
Elveden Produce is the estate’s in-house team of produce marketing experts. The estate produces 5-6% of the UK onion crop and the department markets more than 25,000t annually to the supermarket, wholesale and processing sectors.
A development kitchen has helped turn the estate into a thriving hub of food creation and provided three additional jobs. Chef Peter McBurnie (pictured) has created a range of more than 25 products, including chutneys, sauces, marmalades and jams using ingredients from the estate or nearby.
The kitchen garden is the most recent diversification, started after it became clear there was a market for speciality niche vegetables alongside the larger scale production that the Elvden farm is more traditionally involved in.
Covering 15 acres, the garden provides seasonal vegetables more commonly grown abroad. It aims to offer a sustainable source of flavoursome produce that suits the latest trends in cooking – in as short a supply chain as possible to chefs and customers.
“We look at the best time to harvest the crop, to maximise the eating experience and regularly invite chefs to open days to understand how growing cycles affect seasonality, fluctuations on supply and let them see and taste the crops is in field, to help give them menu ideas.”
Open days are held for the general public. The estate has also hosted regular school visits and farm tours from visitor groups. “It gives us the opportunity to promote and communicate what we are doing, and helps link the consumer side of the estate back to the farm,” says Mr Francis.
“This sort of work is crucial because it highlights the effort and commitment that goes into growing the best crops and produce,” he adds. “It also gives us an opportunity to educate children and adults alike about how their food is grown.”
A word from our sponsors
“It’s always important that we all look for fresh opportunities to grow our businesses and maximise the use of our resources, which is why Firestone is championing this award. The Diversification award recognises innovation and achievement – and applaudds farmers who find new ways to make profits.”
Barry Coleman, Firestone
Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details of how to book tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash.