Triptree: Jam today and more tomorrow for Wilkin & Sons

Chris Newenham, the farm director at Wilkin & Sons.

Chris Newenham, the farm director at Wilkin & Sons. - Credit: Su Anderson

ROSS BENTLEY visits the farm of jam producer Wilkin & Sons to find out about its £15million plans for a new factory.

Arriving at the Wilkin & Sons premises at Tiptree on a sunny June morning, I was immediately aware of a beautiful aroma in the north Essex air.

Fruity sweet smells emanating from the jam factory mingled with the perfume of ripened strawberries ready for picking from a nearby field to produce a delicious bouquet.

For most visitors this mouth-watering fragrance would be something to enjoy, but for farm director Chris Newenham it is a cause of potential stress.

“As the fruit ripens, we only have a window of three weeks to harvest the crop,” he says. “If we have a spell of bad rain there is a danger we could lose some of the fruit, so this time can be tense as well as enjoyable.”

The strawberries in question are a variety known as Little Scarlets, the main ingredient of Wilkin and Sons’ flagship jam product, which, incidentally, is mentioned in Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love as James Bond’s favourite conserve. These small, bite-sized fruits originating from the US give an intense taste and have been grown at the farm since 1885. That entire first batch was exported for sale in Australia, establishing from the outset Wilkin’s international credentials, which today sees the firm sell its products in more than 60 countries across the globe.

Tradition is a huge factor in the success of the company, which now turns over £35million and employs around 270 people. Looking across the field of pickers busy at work, the scene is almost identical – clothing fashions aside - to a photograph taken 50 years ago that hangs in the company’s on-site museum.

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Only one member of the Wilkin family, Peter Wilkin, remains involved in the business and he is now chairman of the firm. The company is moving to an employee-owned model ? staff currently control over 48% of the voting rights within the business and represent its largest single shareholder.

While the company is constantly innovating its farming techniques and product range, in some areas its working practices have not changed for over a century. When it comes to picking and sorting the fruit, mechanisation has been resisted with most tasks still done by hand.

Each year the workforce doubles as seasonal labourers move onto the farm to pick the fruit. This contingent is made up of local helpers, retired caravaners who return each year and a team of foreign workers, mainly from Eastern Europe.

“It’s the way we have always done it and there’s an element of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’,” adds Chris, a dynamic figure who has been at Wilkin and Sons for 13 years and includes running a cocoa plantation in Papua New Guinea among his CV entries prior to his arrival at Tiptree.

And it is not just the welfare of the strawberries that keep Chris awake at night. More than 300 acres of the 850-acre farm are used for farming fruit in a harvesting season that stretches from April to November - starting with rhubarb in the spring and taking in raspberries, blackberries, green gages, plums, damsons and quinces before culminating with medlars deep into autumn.

But it is the cherries that hold a special place in Chris’ heart and, luckily for me, they have just ripened. We spend a wonderful ten minutes tasting the sumptuous dark red fruit and admiring the laden trees, which are protected by overhead canopies and netting to guard against intemperate weather and thieving birds.

The fruit trees in this section of the farm are relatively new with many being less than ten years old. Together with the cherries, the farm’s first crop of apricots is coming to fruition. There are also some old heritage apple varieties being grown while Chris is also experimenting with different types of nut trees and a new super food – sea buckthorn – to see if the company can find a commercial use for them.

Around 10,000 trees have been planted in this area of the farm to replace orchards that, it is hoped, will make way for a new state-of-the art factory. The firm has received outline planning permission for the facility which will form part of a £15million scheme designed to make the production process more efficient and enable the company to adapt to the challenges of the future.

“At the moment, the series of buildings that house our production facilities have been built at different dates ranging from 1885 to 2009,” Chris explains. “While they are full of character, there are no straight lines, some have no insulation and others even still have corrugated metal sheets on the roof.

“We have looked forward to what we will need in the future and this is the type of facility we require to enable the company to thrive. This is a major project for the company and it is important that the financing is achieved without putting the company at risk. ”

Work on the new plans has been on-going for the past three years, over which time the company has liaised closely with architects, local authorities and members of the community. Designs for the new facility show a modern, curved structure dug partly into the ground to minimise the impact on the landscape. There are roof windows to let in light and huge wooden rafters running through the building to enhance the look and feel of the building.

“Most food manufacturing facilities can be quite uninspiring - just boxes with no natural light - but we want a building that has the right appearance for the site and creates a pleasant working environment,” Chris adds.

The designs includes extra space in the building to enable the company to branch out into other areas of production should the opportunities arise. In recent years, Wilkin & Sons has started producing sauces, chutneys and condiments in order to diversify from jams and marmalades.

“We just don’t know what our requirements will be in the future but we want to ensure we have the facilities to move into new areas when the time comes,” continues Chris, who says the company estimates it could employ up to 500 staff by 2030.

As part of the planning settlement, Wilkin and Sons has agreed to give over 12 acres of woodland for public use and contribute £750,000 towards the maintenance of the land.

The firm also plans to incorporate the latest sustainable features in the new factory including technology that enables as much water as possible from the jam-making process to be recycled and used again to water the fruit crops. The company already does this as part of its existing operation and its people have been on a fact-finding mission to visit farms in Israel to ensure it has the best water-saving systems available.

“We are located in the driest part of the driest county in England and water management is crucial if we are to continue to thrive,” says Chris.

Minimising water wastage is just one facet of the farm’s approach which is based on LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) standards – which means everything from energy use, waste management, and water and soil usage is part of the management process.

Key elements of this include the planting of native hedgerows and leaving field borders as natural meadows to encourage wildlife from hares and muntjac deer to essential pollinators, such as bees and ladybirds. The use of chemicals on the farm has been reduced by a 80% in the past decade and only employed as a last resort.

Chris adds: “LEAF makes sense from a business and environmental point of view and also means we get to see some stunning wildlife as we are working around the farm.”