It is rare to meet a 23-year-old as business savvy and cost motivated as Alastair Wilson. The youngest son of the Wilson family at Maggots Nook Farm, Rainford, St Helens has a key role as lead mechanic and engineer in a phenomenal vegetable growing and packing business with a turnover of £12.5m.
Alastair maintains a fleet of over 70 pieces of kit, including 11 tractors, 30 trailers and other pack-house machinery and farm implements.
He is also heavily involved with the carrot production, irrigation and crop harvesting, ensuring all equipment is overhauled out of season.
The former student of Bishop Burton College was nominated for this award by his mother Carol, who has involved her entire family in the Maggots Nook operation, following the death of her husband Thomas 10 years ago.
“He was only 12 when his dad died so he had to grow up very quickly,” said Carol. “Alastair had a serious accident when he was four years old – he got trapped in a potato harvester. He spent a lot of time in hospital but he fully recovered, worked hard at college and has achieved a good deal for someone only 23. Whatever Alastair does, he does it 100 per cent. He’s dedicated and is always learning.”
The rapid growth of the business in recent years has meant that Carol’s three sons and daughter have all had to step up to fresh challenges. The Wilsons acquired the farm tenancy in 1979 from the Church Commissioners and made the most of the 160 acres of grade 1 land with just five staff by initially growing vegetables for markets and shops in the area.
Twenty years later their lucky break came when they were approached to supply 1-2 pallets a day of iceberg lettuce to discount store group Aldi, which was just emerging in the UK. The Wilsons fortunes have developed as Aldi has expanded and they now supply 240 stores across the country with a wide range of daily produce on 1400 acres of land with 120 staff. Their staple produce as an Aldi preferred supplier includes growing and packing brassicas, carrots, spring onions, lettuce and cereals.
Aldi is opening new outlets every three weeks and so demands on the business and on Alastair’s maintenance skills are increasing daily. The farm has recently switched from 72 inch to 80 inch beds for all crop production and Alastair has been responsible for modifying all machinery to fit the new bed widths.
He has been involved with the development and use of technology on the farm from the installation of optical carrot sorters to GPS on tractors for planting and inter row weeding.
“I’ve got an eye for seeing ways to help things go quicker, to save time and money,” he said. “I think I’ve saved between £20-40,000 on modifications on just a couple of pieces of kit.”
It is typical of Alastair to buy a second hand sprout harvester at a farm sale and sprucing it up to be an efficient bit of equipment instead of investing in a new one. He has designed, built and installed the carrot grading line and is particularly proud of a nine row brassica planter he has adapted specifically for their scale of business. Unit cost of production is the key to this farm’s success and Alastair recognises his efforts in the engineering department contribute significantly to the bottom line.
Given the volume of work, it is surprising to see Alastair’s highly organised approach to paperwork and professional attitude towards health and safety. He has created his own system for MOT checking all farm vehicles and logging of defects that would be the envy of many farmers. He is also BASIS and FACTS qualified.
In 10 years time, he expects to continue on the family farm helping improve profitability.
“I love this, it’s like a drug and I’m likely to go on doing it, maybe developing my inventions and design side in the future,” he said.
THE JUDGES LIKED
• Pro-active approach to managing costs and improving efficiency
• Highly skilled mechanic and design engineer
• Positive attitude about farming as a business and career
• Family run tenancy
• Large scale vegetable grower and packer supplying Aldi
• 1400 acres of grade 1 land with 120 staff
• Invested almost £1m in last year to 18 months