Cornwall may be famous for its pasties, but a commercially astute local farmer has found a way of making them even more local, as Rachel Lovell discovered when she went to meet him.
Jeremy Oatey is a farmer with an eye for an opportunity. Not having grown up in farming, where living and breathing the job can blur the boundaries between home life and business, he has come at his agricultural activities from a much more commercial angle.
Today he farms 1,214 hectares (3,000 acres) across Cornwall, with potatoes, swede and onion, the key ingredients for the humble Cornish pasty, at the heart of what he grows.
The bedrock of Jeremy’s business-like approach to farming crystallised after he graduated from Seale Hayne Agricultural College in 1989, when he joined a corporate farming management company called Booker Farming on its graduate training scheme.
He says: “It was a structured approach to business, led by calculations and spreadsheets above anything else.”
From there, he developed his managerial skills through farm management roles with large arable farms in Norfolk and Yorkshire. He returned to Cornwall in 1996, when a flower bulb trader bought a farm in the county to grow daffodils and he was hired in to manage the holding.
He says: “It was 1,000 acres on the Roseland Peninsula near Tregony, where the mild, warm climate is ideal for early flowers.”
By 2003, he was share-farming on the Antony Estate, owned by the Carew Pole family, and soon his productive farming brought along a new opportunity.
“I wanted to do my own thing in farming, to run my own business. It was good timing, as the Antony Estate was looking to contract out its in-house farming operation, so after some careful planning, we took it on.”
With the agreement in place, Jeremy and his wife Sarah set up Agricola Growers that year.
He says: “Agricola is Latin for farmer; Sarah is a language teacher and we liked how it felt. We started with 300 acres, half of which was daffodils and the remainder potatoes, all in rotation with other farming activity on the land.”
As time went on and the business became established, Jeremy was approached to take on more land. Today, the acreage includes one-third on long-term and short-term tenancy agreements, with the remainder contract-farmed, including most of the Antony Estate.
The mixture of land agreements are treated as one entity, as land is generally not rented solely for specific crops, so there is a complete rotation across the entire acreage.
The growing model maximises the high value crops of potatoes and onions where possible, then fills the rest of the rotation with the next highest margin crop.
The contract-farming is a profitable and effective model, as Jeremy explains.
“We supply labour, machinery and management, and landowners provide land and buildings. We have a central account which pays the input costs and receives the sales.
Surpluses are distributed between the two parties. It works well, as we don’t just grow crops, we manage the land and provide the market. It takes some of the volatility out of it for everyone.”
Potatoes, onions, swede and daffodils are the principal crops Jeremy grows, supplemented by combinable crops including wheat, barley, oats, oilseed rape, peas and beans, as well as stubble turnips grown as a fodder crop for the farm’s flock of sheep.
He says: “We also finish 130 Angus cross cattle each year which are bought-in at 12 weeks and finished at 20 months. The 1,200 ewes are North Country Mules and Suffolk cross Mules, producing lambs which all go to Waitrose through Jasper’s abattoir.”
Vegetables remain at the heart of the business because of one simple observation Jeremy made as he established himself in the early years.
“There is a massive bakery and pasty industry in Cornwall, but I discovered most bakeries and manufacturers were having to go out-of-county for the basic ingredients.
“At the time we started, a lot of farmers were just bagging their potatoes in a shed on their farm on a small-scale. We tried to professionalise things a bit, so we started growing and supplying Cornish peeled onions and potatoes at a large-scale; it seemed daft to me no-one had thought of it before.”
Jeremy grows his potatoes and onions with those Cornish pasties in mind. Potatoes must be yellow waxy-fleshed varieties such as Estima, Premiere, Wilja and Melody, so they keep their structure within the cooked pasty.
They start lifting the crop at the beginning of July and average yields of 44-47 tonnes/ha (18-19t/acre).
Their staggered plantings and extensive cold store facilities – a £900,000 onion drying, grading and cold store built in 2013 with 50 per cent EU funding – allow for a constant supply.
Jeremy says: “We actually deliver every day of the year, apart from Christmas day.”
With onions, the team goes for a large rugby ball-shaped variety called Rumba. Here, business decisions are again based on fact – in this case, mathematical analysis to get the best return.
“A large onion means you get a higher peeling recovery rate. For example, a higher percentage of onion for each one you peel.”
Jeremy is the only commercial onion grower in Cornwall, as the mild damp climate creates ideal conditions for fungal disease, it is difficult to grow for the pre-pack market where an unblemished skin is so important.
Potato blight and downy mildew are still significant challenges with the main crops, so the farm team uses computer software to plan fungicide spraying to the most efficient level.
Some might think with thousands of acres and plenty of livestock to manage, Jeremy and his team had enough going on. However, the business developments did not stop there.
He says: “When we first arrived, the estate had started supplying washed potatoes to Ginsters. After a few years of managing the processing site, we bought the plant.”
The vegetable processing operation, called HF Produce, has grown from washing potatoes for one pasty maker to selling washed, peeled, prepared vegetables to bakeries making pasties across the south west.
The turnover of the vegetable processing unit alone is £4 million a year, so it is a significant arm to the business.
Jeremy says: “The farming operation and the processing plant are legally separate businesses, but each feeds off the other.”
When you look at the scale of everything the family has built in little more than a decade, it really is a remarkable accomplishment, yet Jeremy remains modest.
“I would like to say it was all planned, but for much of it we were simply in the right place at the right time. With each opportunity, we took calculated gambles. Many people are saying today you cannot get into farming.
“I know I had a good grounding where working for professionally run businesses meant commercial decisions were not clouded by emotion or family, as is understandably the case when the farm is also your home.”
With four children with a keen interest in farming, it looks like Agricola Growers and HF Produce have a bright and successful future.
Perhaps most remarkable of all though, is after all these years, Jeremy still likes nothing more than a Cornish pasty.