Increasing returns from the field

The appetite for health and traceability is helping those growers seeking to add value to their crops by developing and marketing their own products such as high-end crisps and drinks, reports Spence Gunn.

A high risk, low reward industry with deteriorating profitability and escalating costs was how the NFU characterised horticulture in its report on retail supply chain relationships, Catalyst for change, six years ago. There has been some improvement since then – four of the UK’s largest supermarkets, representing around half of the retail fresh produce market, have signed up to the NFU’s code of practice – but intense retail competition means the squeeze on profit margins is as tight as ever.

No wonder, then, that growers have been trying to find ways to add value to what they produce, and to make greater use of their entire crop so that even the proportion that once went to waste can be made to turn a profit. Some have done so by coming up with an increasingly imaginative range of products.

The crisps market

The crisps market has been an obvious way for potato growers to earn more from the crop by ‘cutting out the middlemen’ and making and marketing the finished product. According to the Snack Nut and Crisps Manufacturers Association (Snacma), crisps of all kinds already account for 11% of the UK’s potato crop – that’s around 600,000 tonnes or 13,000ha – with year-on-year growth in exports of crisps and savoury snacks running at 15%.

One of the first to launch their own crisps range, and arguably the best known, is Tyrrells, set up by Herefordshire potato grower William Chase in 2002 and now owned by KP Snacks. Lincolnshire growers Alex Albone, Simon Herring and James Sweeting founded Pipers in 2004, and use the tagline ‘made by farmers’ as a selling point. Corkers was established at Willow Farm near Ely, Cambridgeshire, in 2010 with crisps made from the farm’s own Naturalo potato variety while Staffordshire couple Anthony and Rebecca Froggatt began Just Crisps the following year, frying the potatoes in their own rapeseed oil, which they’d been producing on the farm since 2005.

It is no easy option, however. “We see a large number and relatively high turnover of micro-enterprise manufacturers and brands as the market is very competitive,” says Snacma director general Andrew Curtis.

“There are some really good success stories, but traditional sliced and fried products can be difficult to produce and there are many more who don’t succeed due to the high costs involved in setting up.”

For new entrants, the challenge is finding a market niche and securing space on shelves, he warns. “Many start out selling through farm shops, local pubs or sandwich chains. The product is often marketed as artisan but really needs to offer a premium eating experience to succeed.”

Offering a regional product or flavour has been one approach but new manufacturers also need to be aware of the political environment that they’re entering, he adds, with the government looking to reduce people’s calorie intake and to control promotion of certain foods.

One of the most recent on the market is the Two Farmers brand, started by Herefordshire potato farmer Mark Green and friend and fellow farmer and potato merchant Sean Mason. They had already been selling potatoes for crisping and took the decision to invest in establishing their own on-farm crisp-making operation three years ago – after meeting one evening for a beer and a packet of crisps in a local pub. The brand launched in October 2018.

Mr Mason says their crisps are differentiated by the locally sourced flavourings and renewable energy used in their production. They were also determined to become the first to use a pack that will biodegrade in a home compost bin.

Vegetable crisps and juices

Andrew Curtis says growth in the market now is mainly for products with a ‘health halo’ such as those based on peas, lentils or sweet potatoes. As competition in the crisps sector increases, so ‘on-farm’ makers have diversified further, including making crisps from other vegetables to tap into the so-called ‘better for you’ healthy snack sector – which is now reported to be worth around £125 million and seeing 9.3% year-on-year growth.

Just Crisps and Pipers, for example, now produce crisps and snacks from UK-grown peas and beans, while Corkers has a vegetable crisp product which includes sweet potato, carrot, parsnip and beetroot. Fairfields Farm Crisps, established by Suffolk growers Robert and Laura Strathern in 2006, recently introduced a range of ‘lentil bites’; and the new ‘Heat & Eat’ snack product, to make crisps taste as though they have been handcooked at home.

Perhaps the most significant recent development comes from Fife cooperative and producer organisation East of Scotland Growers. All of the grower members of ESG, aided by four new board membershave set up a new company and have invested a total of £2 million from their own resourcesto develop a range of broccoli crisps under the new brand Growers Garden, which launched in November.

“The idea came out of a strategic planning exercise looking for alternative income streams for East of Scotland Growers,” says Growers Garden operations manager Martin Jenkins. “It’s taken over two years from that initial idea to launching the product, which included extensive research to see where the market opportunities were.

“What sets us apart is that this really is a world first in terms of the proportion of fresh vegetable ingredient – a minimum content of 27% fresh broccoli from our farms. We are also reducing food waste by using the part of the crop that would otherwise be outgrades, but nutritionally it’s just as good as the rest of crop.”

Mr Jenkins says the brand has been set up so that in future it could sustain a range of products and make use of other vegetable crops, too. Initially the company is concentrating on marketing regionally through specialist retailers and exhibiting at food shows and festivals. “But as it’s such a unique product we also felt from early on that there are good opportunities to export, and we’ve already exhibited at a food trade fair in New York,” he says. “We don’t want to try to do too much too early so will upscale gradually through the coming year.”

Crisps and snacks are not the only added-value products growers have turned to.

Philip Maddocks, who owns PDM Produce in Shropshire, one of the country’s largest specialist growers of lettuce and leafy salads, developed the B.fresh brand of vegetable juice in 2014, coming up with the idea after hailstorm damage rendered a spinach crop unsuitable for the fresh market.

Vodka

But it’s ‘vegetable juice’ in its distilled form that is taking off as a niche product for potato growers. Having sold his crisps business, William Chase started up Chase Vodka after stumbling across a small distillery making potato vodka on a visit to the USA. Four years later, in 2008, he had made his first batch. “The next shock was how little volume we produced: 16 tonnes of potatoes made only 1,000 litres of alcohol,” he says.

He grows the King Edward, Lady Claire and Lady Rosetta potatoes for the distillery, which is based on his farm, and the product is marketed on the back of its traceability right down to the individual field. The whole process, from farm to bottle, takes up to two weeks.

Others have had a similar idea, including several in Scotland. Graeme Jarron and his wife Caroline, who farm in Angus, worked with specialists at Heriot-Watt University’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling in Edinburgh with the result that their Ogilvy potato vodka won the top ‘Gold Outstanding’ award and the overall Vodka Trophy at the prestigious International Wine & Spirit Competition less than a year after its launch.

The Jarrons grow 50 acres of Cultra and Maris Piper potatoes for the pre-pack market on their 500-acre mixed farm. “Wewanted to diversify to make better use of the part of the crop that didn’t make packing grade, and got the idea for making vodka after a trip to Australia,” says Mr Jarron. “We considered crisps, but our climate is not the best for crisping potatoes.”

The research at Heriot-Watt included looking at how suitable the potatoes were for distilling – finding that the best flavour came from using the Maris Piper – and the Jarrons ended up engaging one of the centre’s PhD students as their distiller. “We’d already decided we wanted the whole process in house and didn’t want to copy how anyone else was doing it, so that we made sure we had our own unique taste. It took seven months of trials to get the flavour right.

“We had built the distillery by the end of 2014 and launched in January 2015. We aim to be as sustainable as possible so have 30kW of solar panels on the distillery roof while the waste from the process is fed to our cattle.

“We’re now producing 10,000 bottles a year, still using outgrades but eventually we may grow a proportion of the crop specifically in future.”

Despite receiving enquiries, Mr Jarron says he ‘doesn’t and won’t’ sell to supermarkets, relying instead on independent retailers and on promotion through a dedicated website and exhibiting at shows and events – which he says is ‘time consuming but very worthwhile’. That’s paying off as there are now export sales to Europe and the company is also looking to the Middle East. A new visitor centre is set to open soon, too.

Although vodka is associated with potatoes, other fruits and vegetables are being used as flavourings. Dorset-based The Watercress Company diversified into growing wasabi, a key ingredient in Japanese cooking which is grown in a similar way to watercress, setting up The Wasabi Company in the process. Now it is working with Winchester Distillery at Alresford, Hampshire to produce a small-batch wasabi vodka and a watercress gin.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association says the UK vodka market, still dominated by large multinational brands, is seeing little overall growth but remains much larger than that for gin – though gin is catching up fast, it says. The gin market has doubled in the last five years and grown by 38% in the last year alone.

“Looking back,” says Mr Jarron, “the hardest bit has been the marketing, educating people about the quality of our vodka when we don’t have the budgets of the giant drinks corporations. A big factor was winning that award which gave usindependent judgement on the quality of the product; it attracted potential buyers and meant we had credit in the industry.”

And his one piece of advice to anyone considering taking the plunge to diversify: “Whatever product you choose, don’t take your eye off your core business, which for me is growing the potatoes and running the farm.

“What you choose has to go hand in hand with that, so look for something that dovetails in.”