To celebrate the launch of Farm Essentials, a new insurance product for small farmers from NFU Mutual, we are showcasing small farmers at the top of their game. In the first in the series, we profile Will Steward’s Living Larder.
Will Steward’s enterprise on the Isle of Wight may run across only 3.2 hectares (eight acres), but it sustains five full-time employees and has both wholesale and direct sales channels. He refers to himself as a market gardener rather than a farmer or grower, but his three-year-old business, Living Larder, has had to face many of the challenges of a large-scale horticultural business.
Growing is in Will’s blood; his family first began its vegetable business on the island 100 years ago. Cheap imports flooding the market in the mid-1990s led his parents to give up, but after qualifying as a chartered engineer and moving to Bristol, Will felt drawn back to the land.
He says: “I was always encouraged to get as far away as possible, but at the end of the day, it’s in you. I couldn’t resist it.”
He moved back to his parents’ Galley Horne site, near Apse Heath, with a vision consumers were more interested in buying locally and eating seasonally.
“I really had to look at it on the basis that food prices had not really changed much in 20 years, so the only way this was going to work was with good relationships and missing out as many middlemen as possible.”
He began by planting some outdoor cucumbers. They tasted so good that someone offered to buy them all. Today, Living Larder grows more than 50 varieties of vegetables all-year-round.
Will says: “We have created relationships which take longer to build, but are hopefully more solid once they are established.”
Will explains Living Larder, which he runs with his wife Aimee, has a broad customer base, which means they are in the fortunate position where they can grow anything and know it will be used, either in their vegetable boxes or by chefs and local retailers they supply.
“We deliver vegetable boxes once a week, 52 weeks a year, and it makes up nearly 50 per cent of our business.” Three delivery rounds cover the entire island and customers can choose from four different sized boxes.
“I still do some of the deliveries, so I can speak to our customers and maintain quality. If you walk away too far, the quality might slip, but you would not know because you were not keeping an eye on it.
“We have focused on the local market because they are the ones who are there every day. Tourists come and go and you cannot build a connection with them.
“Learning what your customers want is key, because as much as you think you know, it definitely takes time to work it out.”
Building a connection with consumers is something Will is passionate about.
He says: “I am using about eight acres and altogether there are five members of staff – Aimee and I, a grower, assistant grower and a driver and packer who also works in-field. We can just about sustain five members of staff.
“What I have tried to do is create a business which gives those people a year-round job. This has been more of a driver than anything else – getting people into horticulture.”
Will enjoys inviting customers to the land so they can see what he has created and how it works.
“I want people to come and say ‘they are good guys, I like the way they are giving people jobs and I want to support them’.
“Transparency is key for us. It is playing to our advantage – we’ve got it, we want people to see it and then they will probably pay a little bit more because they feel like they are investing in something.”
Will believes this focus on honesty and the desire to create something worthwhile has appealed to consumers.
He says: “If people thought we were in this to grab as much cash as we could, I do not think it would work. We are trying to do something good. We need to make a living and I want the farm to sustain itself, but the purpose is not to make as much as possible and retire as soon as we can.”
This focus on relationships is also key when it comes to supplying restaurants.
He explains: “You have to work hard for it and make sure you are the one doing the delivering, phoning and chasing. But this is what we have done – it is slow and hard, but it is hopefully building something which will last.”
To foster this relationship, Will experiments with alternative produce which will appeal to chefs, who are always looking for something different to add to their menus.
From five different types of aubergine to watermelon radishes, he is always prepared to try growing something new if it will keep his chefs happy.
He says: “You are never going to make a fortune growing watermelon radishes, but it keeps us different.”
A make-do-and-mend attitude has ensured the business has not had to invest enormously in machinery, land or buildings.
“We are mostly using old buildings from when my dad packed up and all the old equipment too. Our Massey Ferguson from the 1960s still works brilliantly.”
A natural advantage comes in the form of the Isle of Wight’s climate, which typically gives them a longer season.
Will says: “The extra couple of weeks at the start and end can make a difference, so we try and play it to our advantage.
“Overall, we are all about quality. We do not store anything and we pick and deliver on the same day. People do not mind paying a bit more for something better.”
Farm Essentials is a new insurance product from NFU Mutual. Tailored to meet the needs of farms up to 50 hectares (123 acres), Farm Essentials offers a range of benefits designed with the small farm business in mind. Please visit www.nfumutual.co.uk/farmessentials find out more. You will also be able to find your local NFU Mutual branch – with more than 300 around the country, advice is never far away.