Best of British: Herbert Engineering

Many of the best new machinery ideas come from farmers, and that was the case when Rod Herbert built a new grader in 1972 to separate clods from potatoes more efficiently

The Herbert family farms 325ha (800 acres) in the Cambridgeshire fens and potatoes were an important crop in the 1970s. One of the biggest problems on their heavy skirt soil was caused by clods that were difficult to separate from the potatoes using available equipment.

So Rod Herbert designed the Multi-Grader, a two-stage machine that removed the larger ware potatoes first and left the clods and small potatoes to be separated in stage two. His first machine not only solved the clod problem, but also achieved a higher throughput than other graders. A similar machine was ordered by a neighbouring farmer and total sales eventually reached 250.

While his brother ran the farm, Rod Herbert concentrated on expanding the machinery business, which quickly outgrew the converted farm buildings and was relocated on to a separate site. Early additions to the product list included machines for handling and filling boxes, bulk elevators, washers and destoners, with specialist vegetable and salad crop harvesting machines providing a more recent development.

Sales to farmers continued to increase, but some of the company’s rapid growth has also come from supplying equipment to root crop processors and packers. They have had a £6m order from one customer and are meeting a £1m order to equip a packhouse in Poland.

Some of the technology involved is very advanced, including high-speed image analysis for spotting defects, robotics and complex computer control systems. They have also diversified into other markets, including a contract with Cadburys to solve a materials handling problem in the production of jelly babies, plus developing baggage handling equipment for Heathrow Airport

Herbert Engineering is still family owned and controlled, with Rod Herbert as chairman, his son Nick as managing director and daughter Jo as marketing manager. It remains heavily focused on root crop machinery, which produces more than 70% of the total turnover.

Company: RJ Herbert Engineering

HQ: Marshland St James, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Owned by: Herbert family

Employees: 160

Annual turnover: £13m

Principal products: Washing, grading and handling equipment for potatoes and other root crops, vegetable harvesters, composting equipment plus handling systems for non-agricultural products

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