Lessons to be learned from glasshouse leader
Training, research and good
customer contact underpin the
UKs top grower of protected
crops. Brian Lovelidge finds
out what messages the rest
of the arable industry can
learn from its success
PRODUCING two out of every five of the UKs tomatoes is just a stepping stone on the way to far greater things for what is reputed to be the worlds largest producer of protected crops.
With a recent investment of £8m in a new 9.3ha (23-acre) glasshouse at Runcton, West Sussex (Arable, July 24) Hazlewood VHB clearly has high aspirations.
It needs to. Parent company, Hazlewood Foods, anticipates a 25% annual return on that investment. It achieves that in its convenience food production and it expects the same from its glasshouse subsidiary.
Advanced growing facilities help make the goal attainable, says John Hall, Hazlewood VHBs senior operations manager. Round tomato yields should top 592t/ha (240t/acre) in the first year, grossing £617,750/ha (£250,000/acre).
But staff training, research into new products and close co-operation with supermarket buyers are just as important as capital outlay.
"The whole of our business is glasshouse orientated and we are continuing to expand both the area and the product range," says Mr Hall. "One of the keys to our success is our R&D programme. We spend about 2% of turnover on R&D, compared with around 1% by most other industries and much less by farming as a whole."
Much of the work involves new-product development, such as novel herbs and tomatoes, including mini-truss, mini-plum and highly flavoured and differently coloured types.
Research is conducted at the companys nurseries and centres like HRI Efford and Wellesbourne, sometimes in conjunction with breeders. "We work closely with our supermarket customers and have exclusive new variety and product deals with them," says Mr Hall. "That is just one of the differences between us and other agricultural organisations supplying multiples.
"Another is that we operate with no EU or UK government subsidies. If our crops went down with the equivalent of BSE we would be out of business."
Although the company is heavily reliant on supermarkets, the reverse also applies. The result is more co-operation and a better understanding between the two parties.
"We have seen the number of glasshouse producers decline and the big ones get bigger. Agriculture will move in that direction, too. There will also be fewer selling desks because that makes things easier and simpler for the multiples, which want high volumes of products with continuity of supply and assured quality," says Mr Hall. But that does not exclude the small specialist producer, catering for a local niche market, he adds.
Staff training is also important to Hazlewood VHB. When Runcton expanded the staff required soared from 20 to 65. "You cant go out and find 45 skilled or well qualified workers just like that," says Mr Hall. Part of the team was recruited from within, but the rest came from outside and needed training.
Training is also on-going for the 1000-strong workforce. "We do more training than any other horticultural concern. It does not matter whether staff are skilled crop workers, technicians or managers, they all need training to keep on top of their jobs and improve standards and performance.
"Labour accounts for about 70% of our total costs. Its ability to do a good job is in everyones interests."
Faith in NVQs
Great faith is placed in NVQs which are run with the help of Brinsbury College, the West Sussex College of Agriculture, near Pulborough.
Finding enough quality labour is an industry-wide problem, notes managing director, Arnold Lewis. "We try to attract the right people in all sorts of ways that would never have been considered in the past."
One example is a large greenhouse built in a local community college and equipped with the latest technology. "We provide technical assistance to demonstrate its operation and enthuse students about career prospects in glasshouse production."
The company also funds a £10,000 a year MSc studentship in glasshouse technology. The two-year course is centred on colleges in the UK and Holland. The first graduate joined the company last September and the second should do so soon. *
Providing supermarkets with more tomatoes than any other producer demands detailed research, staff training and close co-operation with buyers, say VHBs John Hall (left) and managing director, Arnold Lewis. Broadacre Farming would do well to follow suit, they suggest.
Runcton Nursery is one of seven owned by the company, which has a total glasshouse area of 81ha (200 acres). Units in West Sussex, Kent, South Wales and Portugal contribute £50m to Hazlewood Foods £750m annual turnover. The company produces about 36% of the UKs tomatoes, 95% of its pot-grown fresh herbs and 60% of its salad cress. It has a growing area of soft fruit. About 95% of its output is supplied to supermarkets. Most of the rest goes into Hazlewoods own products, including sandwiches and pizzas.