New entrant Jake Withecombe has two priorities - growing grass and selling cameras - and the plan is to keep getting bigger and better. Ben Pike finds out more about his diverse enterprise.
Jake Withecombe is not just a new entrant in to farming. In five years the 23-year-old has forged a diverse career in the industry by not only launching a niche haylage business in Devon but by making products using cutting-edge optical camera technology which are shipped to other farmers world-wide.
It’s been a rapid rise from growing up on his parents’ small farm near Barnstaple.
At 18 he took a part-time job with a local contractor before heading off to Nottingham University to study agriculture.
But the lure of turning a passion for technology into a business meant that two terms into his course he was back in the Westcountry launching AgriCamera.
“Agriculture is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says.
“I wanted to work outside – although I now seem to spend a lot of my time in an office – but it’s a great industry to work in.”
With the new business off the ground, Jake happened across an opportunity to get a foothold on his own farming ladder. A 51-hectare (125-acre) Devon County Council Starter Farm was on offer just two miles from his childhood home.
“I saw it as an opportunity to properly get involved in farming,” he says. “Those sorts of opportunities don’t come up very often.
“I put together a business plan based on making haylage for racehorses. We had horses when I was younger and I had branched out into hay-making before I went to university, so that was my proposition.
“I was lucky enough to get the tenancy. It seemed a great idea at the time but then the reality hit that it would actually be quite a lot of work on top of everything else I was already involved in.”
The entire acreage is down to grass, run on a three-year rotation. There is a central yard and a house, which Jake has signed a seven-year tenancy on and hopes to have the option to extend it in the future.
“I’ve tried the best I can to keep it looking neat and tidy and the Council is a very good landlord. As far as I’m concerned they have done a lot to try and preserve this opportunity to get young people involved in farming.”
As with most new farmers, the initial investment has proved challenging.
“The machinery was the biggest financial outlay. I had a few bits of kit but over the past two years most of the investment has been in the business. I started out using contractors but now I carry out most operations in-house.”
Jake has placed emphasis on developing a relationship with his core customers, rather than selling his product at all costs.
“That’s the key to it really, anyone can grow grass but it’s how you sell it that’s the skill.
“I think too many farmers are in a race to the bottom in order to grow their produce for the lowest possible cost, when their energy would be better spent in adding value to the end product.
“A 10 per cent increase in your sale price is more valuable than a 10 per cent decrease in your cost of production.”
He markets his Swanmoor Haylage business as a specialist supplier of premium horse haylage. Customers are spread out across the UK, but the weaker sterling has provided an opportunity for international exports.
“I don’t need many customers because there are a few core customers of high-end racing yards and I’m trying to do more with exports because there’s a market for that at the moment, especially with the pound being where it is.”
Developing his customer base in Europe is a key goal for next year.
“There are lots of European countries that can’t produce forage because of the climate. Ryegrass needs a lot of rainfall to grow. Equally, they have horses that have all the same requirements as those here in the UK.
“At the moment a lot of those yards import from America or Canada so there’s an opportunity for me to gain customers there. Transport isn’t really an issue because they are willing to pay for it because the alternative is to bring it in from America.”
Spreading his customer base is one goal, but he doesn’t have a huge desire to expand his current acreage. He would rather focus on quality.
“The whole process of getting into farming has been a huge learning curve. For example, I haven’t had parents to tell me when the haylage is ready to bale – it’s been a massive learning experience.
“I’ve been very lucky that there have been lots of other farmers and industry people who have helped me along the way which I’m very grateful for.”
Meanwhile, AgriCamera has been quietly expanding and now has four full-time employees.
The idea for the business came about after a local farmer asked Jake if he could help him to put a calving camera in a shed on his smallholding.
“I thought ‘how hard can it be?’
“After doing the first system, I realised there was probably a demand from other farmers for the same thing so set about creating a self-install kit to sell.”
Products have developed beyond shed monitoring and now the company has a large market share in the agricultural security camera market.
Jake says: “We also understand farming and the difficulties of installing a system in a farm environment. We can be much more accommodating than other CCTV companies as a result.”
The technology has proven to be extremely versatile and Jake is now working on the next stage of product development which he believes will provide an efficiency and management benefit to poultry farmers around the world.
“We are putting cameras into the ceilings of chicken sheds to get an aerial view of the shed,” he explains.
“We can then use computer vision technology to identify where the birds are in the shed and ‘track’ them.
“This information can then be used by the producer to identify patterns of bird behaviour and accurately measure how good the bird distribution is. In the future we hope to be able to use this data to optimise the heating and ventilation system in the shed.”
It’s a product that is in live testing at present but one that he hopes to bring to market in partnership with ventilation experts The Draper Group at some point next year.
While the process plays out, Jake has to juggle his priorities of growing grass and selling cameras.
“I’ve had a bit of change in heart in the past year – I thought I would be growing more haylage but if I expand at the moment the rest of the farm and my other business might suffer.
“It’s better for me to do a really good job of what I’ve got at the moment and farm every acre to the best I can. That’s as valuable as trying to do more all the time and ending up chasing my tail.”