Farmers Weekly Awards: Diversification finalists 2020

This year’s three finalists have all developed sound businesses to keep the farm afloat and provide a succession platform for future generations.

The diversifications include a fruit farm selling direct to supermarkets and a successful vineyard in Yorkshire. 

The 2020 Diversification finalists 

  • Molly Coombs
    Grand Get-Togethers, North Yorkshire
  • Tom and Henry Wilson and Alice Maltby 
    Little Wold Vineyard, East Yorkshire
  • Anthony and Christine Snell
    British Frozen Fruits, Hereford

The judges

  • Emma Boyles The Little Grey Sheep and last year’s winner
  • Oliver McEntyre National agricultural strategy director at Barclays
  • Edward Mowbray Farmers Weekly senior machinery reporter

See also: 2019 Diversification Farmer of the Year finalists

Molly Coombs

Grand Get-Togethers, Sherburn, North Yorkshire

A passion for the North Yorkshire family farm meant Molly Coombs wanted to live and work on the fourth-generation enterprise some day, but knew she had to carve out a niche for herself in order to become part of the furniture.

Her mother, Joan, had laid the foundations for a holiday business in 2007, when she converted three farm buildings into a luxury 12- person unit, Westfield Granary. She had noticed the market was shifting to favour group staycation properties, rather than individual rents.

Molly Coombs and her mum Joan

Molly Coombs and her mum, Joan © Jim Varney

All this was undertaken while raising three children, and the success of Westfield Granary proved the market’s appetite for large party venues. In 2011, a Grade II listed building, Corner Farm, housing 16 guests was developed.

After a spell travelling and helping out on changeover days, the then 21-year-old Molly returned home to secure a position for herself and take on the biggest renovation to date.

Taking it further
Guided by her mum, Molly was instrumental in converting The Yard to complement the existing accommodation and provide the family with a third large, bespoke self-catering property. The finish of each is such that hot tubs, games rooms and log burners are common features, and combined, the three units can sleep 46 people.

However, this extra property wasn’t enough to keep Molly employed by the business full-time, mainly because the three barns were externally marketed – a decision taken in the early stages to reduce any extra admin work on the 800ha farm.

Molly took on the marketing and bookings for The Yard, leaving the other two properties with the agent. She developed a strong brand identity and organised advertising and reservations herself. It became clear this was the future and she soon took on all three properties, saving the 20% commission charged on each property.

Grand Get-Togethers sits alongside the farm, with Molly and Joan helping out when needed and Bertie, Molly’s brother and the farm manager, reciprocating the favour when logs need stacking or boilers emptying. The farm’s Labrador is on hand to help guests on arrival.

The business used local tradespeople to renovate the buildings, and extra cleaning staff, gardeners and a hot-tub maintenance assistant are all locals.

Unsurprisingly, the main costs include staffing, utilities and laundry, but there has been a continual reinvestment in the business to improve the facilities, such as Westfield Granary recently getting a new open-plan kitchen area.

A small barn was converted for a local hairdresser and beautician to move onsite to attract groups of girls to visit. Biomass boilers provide renewable heating, while there are touchscreen tablets in all the properties for guests to check in, communicate with Molly and search for local recommendations.

Alongside the properties, a DIY licenced wedding venue makes use of the landscaped gardens at Westfield Granary and adjoining 4ha of parkland, with guests able to book the whole space for the event.

Future plans
There are links to the farm such as an onsite farming museum, set up by Molly’s grandad, and organised farm tours, alongside runs and walks. These have been mapped via a smart watch and printed out for guests to use.

Molly is also developing a reputation as a motivational speaker, talking at her previous college and the Women in Farming conference. The next step is a recently purchased barn four miles away, with a vision to offer a second wedding and accommodation venue, for 70 guests.

What the judges say

“Grand Get-Togethers has established itself as a luxury family-run getaway in the heart of Yorkshire. Quality renovations have helped attract a niche clientele and strong management has formed a clear vision for the future.” 

Summary

What the judges liked
• High-quality accommodation finished to a top-notch standard using local tradespeople and staff
• Strong leadership and direction for the business, embracing technology to keep a good work/life balance and vision for the future
• Comprehensive grasp on what their guests require in a modern UK holiday venue, with some very personal touches

Farm facts
• A Cussons and Son – fourth-generation family farm
• 800ha 
• Finishes 2,000 store lambs
• Crops include wheat, barley, OSR, carrots and potatoes

In numbers
20 years since the first property renovation
46 guests can stay in three properties
20% saving by bringing the marketing in-house
£400,000 reinvested in the properties over the past six years
70 guests at the proposed new wedding venue

Tom and Henry Wilson and Alice Maltby 

Little Wold Vineyard, East Yorkshire
Henry Wilson knew his farm couldn’t support bringing his children, Alice and Tom, into the business, especially as wheat prices tumbled in the early noughties, so he took half of his productive arable ground and planted it with short-rotation coppice willow.

Doing so allowed the farm to sell a lot of high-value equipment, including a hill-sider combine, but when Henry’s siblings wanted to cash in on the land a few years later, he knew there was no way the coppice areas would support buying the farm or providing jobs for other family members.

Tom and Henry Wilson and Alice Maltby in the vineyard

Tom and Henry Wilson and Alice Maltby © Jim Varney

The site lies on productive arable land and unproductive chalky hillsides, but research revealed the slopes ticked a number of boxes for growing vines, and there looked to be a growing market for English wine, too. It was a pretty out-there idea, given that Yorkshire is not known for its wall-to-wall summer sunshine, but Henry decided that it was worth a shot.

Bridging the gap
In 2012, the family planted 2,000 vines and Tom and Henry set about managing them using the farm’s old tractors and adapting machinery to carry out various jobs. However, a greater hurdle appeared to be that it would be at least four years before any significant income could be realised from the investment in the vines.

Alice was tasked with bridging this gap and, inspired by the stunning 60-mile views over the vines, South Cave and up to the Pennines, she set about contacting some marquee companies about the possibility of a wedding venue.

A small field that had once earned £3,000/year was turned into a wedding setting, and this provided the security the bank needed to allow the family to buy the farm, preventing it from being sold off in chunks to the highest bidder.

Having a bespoke wedding venue was one thing, but being able to market it correctly, turn it into a viable business and successfully run a couple’s big day was a steep learning curve.

Alice and Tom both held down part time jobs to help with cashflow in the early stages, and the hard work has paid off, with income trebling each year so far. After the business held its first wedding in 2014, there have been more than 50 and the success has allowed the purchase of a marquee to reduce hiring costs. 

The weddings helped fill the financial gap and, in 2016, Little Wold Vineyard produced 2,000 bottles of wine, which was ramped up to 15,000 in 2018. To keep up with demand, the family have planted a further 9,500 vines, with an extra vineyard rented locally.

Routes to market have been selling as much direct to the customer as possible via an internet shop, as well as events. The wine is also used at the wedding venue for welcome, table and bar drinks for up to 150 guests. This advertising has been invaluable and links the two revenue streams.

Tasting Room
To date, the vineyard has produced three white and three sparkling wines, one red and one rose. The family enters each bottle into national competitions, and every wine has received at least a bronze medal.

Recently, the family made the decision to build a bespoke room on the farm to host various functions to promote the wine and agriculture.

The Tasting Room holds willow-weaving courses, corporate tasting events, parties and, of course, weddings. A big next step for the business is to bring wine production in-house by investing about £250,000 in a purpose-built facility. Currently, this is outsourced at an upfront cost of about £60,000/year.

What the judges say:

“A bold diversification has allowed Alice, Tom and Henry to continue farming. Hard work has been central to a successful, varied business using two revenue streams – vineyard and wedding venue – that link together seamlessly.”  

Summary

What the judges liked
 Bold diversification in a challenging weather climate delivering an award-winning product
• Family-run business with younger generation involved  
• Confidence to learn and take on roles in-house rather than outsourcing
• Two revenue streams work well together to complement the farm

Farm facts
• 80ha farm size
• Fourth-generation family farm
• Productive flat land and steep chalky hillsides
• Short rotation coppice willow planted in 2012
• Hillsides in environmental stewardship schemes

The numbers
12,000 vines planted
50+ weddings have been held
£50,000-£60,000 upfront wine production costs
£250,000 approximately to build onsite winery
100-150 guests on a wedding day

Anthony and Christine Snell

British Frozen Fruits, Herefordshire
After buying 40ha of bare land in Herefordshire, Anthony and Christine Snell quickly realised that farming conventional arable crops alongside a small herd of Herefordshire cattle wasn’t going to stack up financially.

They made the bold move to diversify into the fresh fruit sector, specialising in quality over quantity by growing premium varieties destined for the taste-conscious buyer.

However, although the business proved successful, at harvest, the market was flooded with an influx of fresh fruit that slashed prices and created worrying amounts of waste.

Anthony Snell on farm

Anthony Snell © Richard Stanton

The onsite storage worked well for fresh fruit production, with a 2,000t packhouse able to cope with delivering daily fresh berries to the likes of Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsburys, but there was no way of preserving fruit for any length of time.

Freezing storage
The couple decided to diversify once again by investing in freezer technology that would allow the farm to harvest berries at the optimum time for maximum flavour and preserve the fruit immediately by using the individually quick frozen (method.

A freezer store with the capacity to hold 1,000 pallets via a clever racking system was built, which allows them to continue with the core business of supplying fresh, but when the produce hits peak harvest, any excess can be frozen to maintain quality.

It involved a steep learning curve, as the frozen fruit market differs considerably from the fresh one. Their aim was to change the perception that frozen fruit is typically of low quality and rather tasteless, and the solid berries have already made it onto the shelves of various big-name stores in the form of high-end white label frozen punnets.

Along with these large markets, the couple have introduced their own brand – Windmill Hill Fruits – that is stocked in booth supermarkets, farm shops and other independent stores. A successful redesign of the website in 2018 provided a 40% increase in turnover on the previous year. 

2020 has seen further growth, with deliveries to artisan businesses and households throughout the UK, boosted by the Covid-19 restrictions. The puree and juicing markets have also become a target for the Snells in the UK and abroad, helping to reduce food waste.

There is continual analysis of what customers want and how they receive products, with extra lines such as a sweet eating selection introduced for this year.

Reducing labour
The Snells cite labour as their biggest cost, with all fruit hand-picked to maintain quality, and although the freezer business has allowed the farm to employ packhouse staff year round, they are continually looking at ways to reduce numbers out in the field.

Table-top production reduces the need for pickers to bend down and so increases hourly fruit picked volumes. The farm adopted integrated pest-management strategies and works with the AHDB’s Champion Pickerto train up new staff quickly.

The business has also placed a big focus on the environment by introducing a hedgerow and tree planting programme, installing more than 120 nesting boxes for 49 species of birds, and planting grass under the table-top beds to reduce the effects of water run-off in the fields. Solar panels on the packhouse and freezer facility generate about 20% of the farm’s energy demand.

Anthony is involved with a grower-owned co-operative supplying UK berries, while Christine is a board member for labour supplier Concordia.

What the judges say:

“Anthony and Christine have turned land making marginal profit from conventional farming into a market-leading frozen fruit business, with a clear handle of financials and labour sourcing, backed up by continual innovation.”

Summary

What the judges liked 
Innovative freezing venture that tapped into a new revenue stream to further the initial business
• Provides employment year round to reduce the reliance on seasonal help
• Continually looking at ways of embracing technology to streamline the business

Farm facts
• 1998 diversified into fresh fruit production
• 200ha current farm size
• 1,300t of soft fruit (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries)
• 700t of bush fruit (blackcurrant, redcurrants, chuckleberries)
• 120 bird nesting boxes around the farm, with 49 species recorded

In numbers
1,000 pallet capacity freezer store
2,000t capacity on-site packhouse
40% increase in turnover due to website redesign in 2018
20% of the farm’s energy usage comes from solar
40ha was the initial farm size

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