Farming Insight: Potato farmer Robert Strathern on smashing through the barriers to market

Potato farmer ROBERT STRATHERN, of Wormingford, near Colchester, decided to diversify into crisp making. Here he explains how he and wife Laura created Fairfields Farm Crisps, an operation now been brought onto the farm

IT was back in the winter of 2005, when Laura and I began to search for ways in which we may possibly be able to add some value to the potato crop we grew.

At this time the potato operation occupied 200 acres of land and the potatoes were grown and sold into the fresh market. Potatoes are a very intensive and expensive crop to grow, and are particularly sensitive to the varying weather patterns we experience in the UK. They require exact amounts of water and nutrition throughout their life cycle. Whilst this is a challenge, it is one that as a farmer you have to relish and embrace for what it is. The weather cannot be controlled. Whilst occasionally it falls in your favour, it often does the opposite. But whatever it throws at you, as a commercial farmer you have to accept it, work around it, and not get too demoralised when it throws a curve ball at you.

The potato market is, and always has been a volatile one, which experiences peaks and troughs as do all commodity based markets. With the challenges associated with growing and marketing the potato crop close to mind, we were looking for a business proposition which made our potato crop more stable in terms of financial returns. The two variables of weather and market forces are things you cannot control, and I guess I like control, which meant we needed to change our marketing approach.

Our endeavour back in 2005 to stabilise the business by adding value and creating a branded product was a long cry from simply growing the crop.

But before you could make a good quality crisp, the foundation of having a good quality spuds is first and foremost. As a young business we didn’t have the funds available to build a factory from day one, and it made sense for us to create a market, and a brand, then prove the viability of the business before investing in a manufacturing facility. So we went to work, starting with farm shops and food halls close to home, and gradually branched out into wider and more diverse markets. By 2010, the question of “do we supply the multiple retailers?” was on our minds.

We didn’t want to place Fairfields in the supermarkets, so we decided to develop a brand called “Jackpots” which is now sold into the supermarkets across East Anglia. This enabled us to keep Fairfields exclusive to the independent sector, which we had established it in from day one. The good thing about crisps is that as a nation we love them, and there are many different outlets retailing them.

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However, that does of course make the industry very competitive.

Having established the Fairfields Farm Crisps brand, during the four years that followed, we also installed a washing and prepack line for the fresh potatoes we grew. We started to supply retailers across Essex and Suffolk directly with prepacked potatoes, our single biggest customer being the East of England Co-operative, who were very quick to realise that the consumer’s demand for locally grown potatoes was particularly relevant in their stores.

Four years later, and having developed the Fairfields Crisp brand further, we felt that the business was in a position to invest in a crisp manufacturing facility, which would ultimately give us the control we required as the business had moved on. It was, however, a fairly big leap of faith. We had been growing, storing and packing potatoes for a long time, but cooking, bagging and flavouring crisps was certainly an art which we had to learn from scratch. It took some time installing the equipment, ensuring the product was right and training staff, but after a period of three months we felt we had cracked it, and were producing a product we could be proud of. I think the business has worked because the market genuinely asks for what we produce. Perhaps when we were growing potatoes purely for sale in bulk we made ourselves vulnerable to downward price pressure, as packers and processors strive to buy at prices which suit their margins, not the growers. As a business however, we do still serve a proportion of our crop into the mainstream potato packers, but we are not ultimately reliant upon it to the extent we once were, and this I feel reduces our exposure to the pressures of one market and one crop.

Over the last six years, we have invested a lot of time and money in the business in order to meet our ultimate goal of taking the crop we grow from field to a finished product. It would be wrong to say that breaking into a competitive market has been easy, and certainly balancing the pressures of a new business, with having a young family too, can prove challenging at times! However, we really enjoy what we do, and hope that our customers can really identify with the products we produce. We strongly believe that locally produced food is an integral part of the local economy. It reduces food miles and pointless distribution costs, whilst creating and retaining jobs. A pound spent and recycled within the same local area really helps to provide the local economy with the stability and sustainability that is vital in today’s tough economic climate.

It is also, I feel, important to be a part of your rural community. Since we have built the factory, we have started to engage with local schools who are interested in educating their pupils in how their food is grown and produced. We feel this is a really important part of what we do, because it’s very important that young people are aware of where their food comes from, and what it takes to get it to their dinner plates.

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