New year, new venture? Farm diversification tips from award-winners

Farmers Weekly asked winners and finalists from the past five years of its diversification award category to pass on their top tips for developing alternative enterprises.

James Hewetson-Brown, Wildflower Turf, Hampshire

©Tim Scrivener

©Tim Scrivener

Recognise your strengths, but realise what you are not good at. I got help in those areas and listened to the advice.

This allowed me to understand what needed improving and while this was a financial commitment, we made and continue to make those improvements. I feel the business is now much more organised and ready for further expansion.

Two aspects of our business are key. The first is innovation – the practical side of producing our soil-less Wildflower Turf was innovative and finding new products and initiatives has driven the business forward.

This has been relatively easy. It is enjoyable and there is never a shortage of ideas for products or initiatives to improve the brand.

The second – and the bit that was hard and that I was bad at – was putting the management and marketing structure in place to allow the business to grow.

I recognised that I needed help with this to let the business grow and importantly, to ensure that the growth would not be overly stressful for me, my wife Claire and our family and employees.

So I asked for help from someone I knew who lived locally and had his own non-farming business. This was on a commercial basis and was mostly advice-based, but also some hands-on work.

Andy Fussell, Fussell Fine Foods, Somerset

©Alexandra Joseph

©Alexandra Joseph

Keep it simple and try to utilise and enhance assets that you already have, whether it be a dip in a field that could be filled and or a pond/lake created using the income from the fees generated from the tipping/filling – a great way to create something without cost if a deal can be done.

A redundant building can be up graded into a country meeting room, charged out daily to different companies, clubs, organisations, bands (very few places for music bands to rehearse and make noise).

This is low input but a good gain if regular customers can be obtained. Facilities are just basic, unlike the scale needed for houses.

Diversification tends to mean that sometimes you are looking to use existing staff as they are there anyway, so make sure they are happy with the role that you want them to attempt.

Always make sure staff know exactly what their responsibilities are, give specific jobs. Let staff get on with their job, the one that you gave them and wanted them to do.

Don’t drag them away to do other stuff, otherwise the job you really want them to do well suffers and invariably is not done to the standard you wanted in the first place.

When you price up your diversification, whatever it is , don’t go too low!

You’ll always struggle to get the price up once you’re running but you can drop if necessary.

Generally a diversification idea has come about as it is considered needed and wanted, so you should be able to charge sensibly to achieve a good return.

Famous last words… don’t bite off more than you can chew!  

Lord Robert Newborough, Rhug Organic Farms, Denbighshire

©Jim Varney

©Jim Varney

Always take good advice when diversifying.

Cost it out carefully, think who is going to run the project and what expertise you have at your disposal. Also, consider carefully how it will affect your core business.

Look at your gearing – my belief is that land prices will stabilise and might fall in the short term, so only borrow comfortably within your means.

Be active and look at diversification to secure your future, assessing all the assets you have. There are so many things you can do, in particular if you have reasonable access to your farm.

Gorge walking, galloping, running events, catering, B&B, fishing, shooting, educational visits, storage in old buildings…the list is endless.

Look at your costs carefully, for example, electricity, fuel, cleaning products and so on – big savings can be made by shopping around.

David Harper, Top Barn, Worcestershire

©Richard Stanton

©Richard Stanton

Arrange meetings on a regular basis. Ours are monthly, covering long-term planning as well as day-to-day procedures.   We are a small team, and our meetings include family and key management staff.

Have a wash and brush up for the meeting and get into smart clothes.

Invite a business person to join you and your team – someone you trust and with whom you can be open. They will bring a new dynamic to your operation.

Have an agenda and deliver an action plan, preferably with timescales against tasks or stages.

This has made a huge difference, making our meetings more “official”.

Richard & Fraser Manners, John Manners, Northumberland

©Jim Varney

©Jim Varney

Networking at large agricultural shows in the UK and Europe has helped generate new customers and suppliers.

Meetings regularly with our accountant has helped achieve the right structure as the business has grown.

Oliver Paul, Suffolk Food Hall, Suffolk

©Tim Scrivener

©Tim Scrivener

You need to like people. Typically, when you step out of the tractor cab to start a diversification project, it involves a lot more interaction.

Inspiring staff, entertaining the public, selling to consumers, influencing statutory officers, galvanising stakeholders… the list goes on.

If you’re not best placed to deal with many different types of people in an individual way, make sure someone else can. It is the principal route to success.

John Barnes, Packington Moor, Staffordshire

©Tim Scrivener

©Tim Scrivener

Before embarking on any diversification you should always do your homework, but inevitably it is often a leap of faith. Location is key and particularly in the wedding business, you need to customise to your demographic.

You constantly need to maintain standards and invest, you can’t sit back on your laurels. Be aware of the competition – if your model is successful someone is bound to imitate it.

Be prepared to “sell your soul” – you really have to enjoy engaging with the general public. 100% commitment is essential.

Never forget your core business, but for us without a doubt we would struggle without the diversification – price volatility in agriculture has never shown itself more than in the past few years, thus emphasising its importance.

Ian Burrows, Newhay Feeds, North Yorkshire

©Jim Varney

©Jim Varney

Pay attention to the small details – they are so important.

Newhay Feeds diversification set out to change from typical arable production, to producing a forage feed that was sustainable, with high added value, while looking for niche or unusual market sectors.

This was achieved by growing, artificially drying and packaging timothy grass into products for the pet food and equine markets.

Anything that is difficult to do is always worth doing – if you truly believe in it. This helps create your unique selling points, which are essential in such a competitive market.

David and Jane Newman, Stroud Hill Touring Caravan Park, Cambridegeshire

©Tim Scrivener

©Tim Scrivener

The best decision we made was to join buying group Anglia Farmers. Not only do they have strong buying power due to the volumes they buy (everything from utilities to fertiliser to machinery and office supplies) but they invoice once a month, having checked all suppliers’ and contractors’ invoices first.

Mistakes are dealt with efficiently and we can buy through them or arrange accounts with local suppliers, which is something we prefer to do as we like to support other small local businesses.

This gives me time to focus on other things such as PR and marketing, HR and health and safety.

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