It’s not often one writes about people starting a new career in commercial food production.
But a chance meeting at a local running club led two computer professionals to make that choice.
Jason Nickels and Steven Waters had been working in different fields in IT in the south west and London for some years.
Keen gardeners and vegetable growers, they weren’t dejected with their jobs, but knew they wanted a lifestyle change.
The fruits of their labours, the South Devon Chilli Farm, based near Kingsbridge, started as a hobby.
But it was soon overtaken by the commercial opportunities they uncovered.
“We didn’t necessarily do any market research,” says Mr Nickels.
“But there were people selling fresh chillies in the summer months and we thought:
There’s so much more that can be done with that.
“We saw chilli production could satisfy more markets, trade all year round and develop into a diverse business selling jams and preserves as well as plants and seedlings.”
Quickly growing beyond the confines of two gardens, the chilli project found a home at a nearby plant nursery, which offered Jason and Steven the use of some polytunnels.
Basing prices on imported dried chillies and supermarket products, the partners began marketing fresh chillies through farmers’ markets and on the internet.
“We were gambling that it would take off, but after the first six months we knew it was too much to be a part-time job.
We were getting orders and requests to do markets we couldn’t fulfil.
“And we couldn’t have done this without farmers’ markets.
Payment is instant, in cash, giving you an immediate return on investment.
And, more importantly, you’re out talking to your customers, not waiting three months for payment.”
The pair decided the idea was too good to abandon and gave up their day jobs.
But to take the business to its full potential they knew they would need to find about 120,000 in extra capital.
“We needed about 10 acres and more polytunnels.
That’s where NatWest came in.”
As if giving up the security of a monthly pay-cheque wasn’t enough, the partners had to offer their homes as guarantees to support a loan.
“Peter Reynolds, our local NatWest agricultural manager, guided us through it and keeps an eye on the project with regular visits and advice.
He didn’t just pursue the money lending.”
Mr Reynolds was able to help prepare projections of how the business was expected to trade over three years.
“And at this time we hadn’t completed a full year’s trading, so we went to the bank with only nine months’ books certified by our accountant,” says Mr Nickels.
At its new home, all elements of the business are under one roof.
The bank’s loan paid for the land, but also helped to replace a run-down agricultural building with a new unit, where the jams and preserves are made.
“We’ve also heavily pushed the horticultural side, selling seeds, seedlings and plants.
We now grow about 83 varieties, some for food production, some for showing visitors and even some ornamental chilli pot plants,” he says.
“My only regret is that we didn’t do this quicker.
But if I’ve got any advice it’s to start small and not invest too much capital in a project.
We couldn’t afford to just hit the ground running.”
And the farm’s customers include real chilli aficionados.
“Our hot sauce, like Tabasco, is very popular.
We have one customer who swears by a teaspoonful, swallowed neat, everyday.
And another who likes to add it to his gin.”
How many farmers wish they could make their buyers’ eyes water?
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