Growing a variety of vegetables for multiple markets has enabled the Prescott family to expand their business across the country. Danusia Osiowy visits West Lancashire to find out how tradition meets innovation.
If there was ever any doubt family farming might be losing its momentum, a trip to Goores Farm, Lancashire, quashes any such notion.
Grandparents, sons, wives and grandchildren are all in the mix and fundamental to a three-pronged approach for the evolving vegetable business.
To understand its operation now is to trace it back to its roots when Roy and Rose Prescott started out in 1956 on a smallholding in Maghull, West Lancashire, 10 miles from their current location, growing a modest amount of vegetables.
Roy began attending the farmers lines at Liverpool Wholesale Market in 1960 selling vegetables, straight off his trailer. The outlet welcomed lots of grocers who were using the market for their supply. It meant he could carry out other work during the day before heading off in the early hours of the morning to meet and greet his customers. Twenty years later he took on a permanent stall, which enabled him to begin selling more lines supplied by other farmers.
The couple moved to today’s site after Roy’s father decided to retire in 1974. As he took over the business, Roy’s own children – Roy, Ron, Clifford and Joe – gradually returned to the farm after completing school, finding their own roles within the enterprise and now run the business full-time.
Fast forward 40 years and the business has gone from a 12-hectare (30-acre) holding growing three different vegetables, to a 81ha (200-acre) farm growing 10-plus vegetables for new and existing markets, as well as supporting the 10-strong family unit.
Heading up the sales side is older brother Ron Prescott, who has continued to progress the Liverpool market six days a week, as well as securing new wholesale markets. Helping him are daughters Samantha, 27, who works at the market and Hayley, 24, who completes the admin.
Trading under Prescott Farm, Ron works with 120 suppliers, 50 of which are local, along with a handful from Europe to help ensure he is able to sell consistently throughout the year.
Managing supply via wholesale is a challenge, with demand constantly fluctuating among customers who are predominantly grocers, restaurants and caterers.
He says: “For the market, it’s very much a gut feeling of what you might need. Some customers just turn up on the day and want it there and then. Some will ring through the night before, others will leave messages. I guess it’s all about experience and understanding the market.”
As the wholesale trade market in Liverpool took a hit from the presence of supermarkets, he now also sells produce into 10 other wholesale markets nationwide, supplying cabbage, sprouts, cauliflour, swedes and broccoli.
“It has been intentional not to work with supermarkets and has always been our choice. We have not gone down the supermarket route as the wholesale markets have always kept us busy, and it is where our name is known.
The wholesale market has been in the family for a long time and we like to support that type of outlet."
“Having the girls working with me is great. Samantha is helping to grow the business and look at different ideas.
“You know what it’s like when you run a business – you don’t necessarily have time to sit back and take stock because you get so bogged down with its daily running.”
Middle brother Joe is in charge of the haulage side of the business, collecting local orders from suppliers and running them back into the farmyard ready to load the company wagon to run into Liverpool at night ready for Ron to start selling at 1am.
Heading up the farm is Roy and Clifford who trade as J.R. and R. Prescott, with the help of six full-time staff.
The farm’s focus on soil care has been essential to introducing more vegetables, which now include sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, leeks, broccoli, swede, broadbeans and onions.
Clifford says: “The loam soil is advantageous to growing vegetables as it is easy to work, not a heavy soil, dries out quickly so we can work it sooner after rain and it doesn’t wear implements out as quick.”
About 75,000 nets of sprouts are produced and 80,000 boxes of cauliflower – the farm’s two biggest vegetable lines.
Early cauliflower varieties include Abeni and Mometum, the main season is Boris followed with several winter varieties which are more hardy to protect against crops.
Meanwhile for sprout varieties, Abacus and Helemus are used early season and Batavus for late winter. The Profitus variety is the choice for Christmas, when orders can double across all their enterprise.
Clifford says: “Using several varieties gives us a quality crop throughout the seasons and adapts to the different conditions.”
Cauliflowers are planted each week from mid-March for a constant supply through the season and sprouts are planted in May.
Early cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli are covered with a fleece 10 weeks to give them a warmer growing environment to bring them ready for harvest sooner. Pesticides are used on a preventative basis and fertiliser is all granular and applied via a broadcast method.
With the soil susceptible to drying out more quickly in a dry season, regular irrigation is important. A rain gun and trickle irrigation system is used, with water abstracted from the Leeds Liverpool canal which runs through the farm.
Harvesting is carried out by their own staff and crops harvested on that day will be dispatched to wholesale markets nationally. Investment has been made in new kit to improve productivity and an upscale of mechanical weeding equipment has reduced the cost and use of chemicals.
The Cabbage Box now operates Monday to Friday and has a 100-strong regular customer base. As well as processing their order in a vegetable shed on-site, Sheila also carries out the deliveries every day.
“I have so much variety as I can be out delivering or out in the fields. I enjoy getting out and about as I have a lot of customers who are older and have lost partners since I have known them. I always make time to spend 10 minutes with them as I know a visit can brighten up their day.”
The online orders can vary each week but Sheila remains unfased, understanding it is a natural part of direct selling.
“Our produce is that fresh it can last them up to a couple of weeks. So we have some who order every week and others who are more staggered with their orders.
“It’s a slow burn but we hope to grow it so there is a business for our girls to come back to if they want in the future.”
The third branch of the business is a diversification into direct sales via The Cabbage Box, an online farm shop which launched in 2011 supplying a 20-mile radius.
Leading the enterprise is Sheila, Roy’s wife, with the help of their two daughters Annie, 12 and Millie, 10.
She says: “We decided to diversify while we were trying to find new business. A farm shop was not an option as we are spread thinly enough a lot of the time and don’t want to worry about staffing it.
“But the area is densely populated and we knew people wanted local and fresh food without having to go to the supermarkets, so the online business gives local people that choice.”
Start-up costs were low. The biggest outlay was a new delivery van and a new website and both were self-funded investments.
“It required little outlay compared to some diversification. With farming you can wait four weeks, even four months for payment. With this, the order has been placed and the money has left their account before the produce leaves the farm.”
Marketing came in the form of leaflet drops, voucher offers, social media and attending local food festivals and Sheila quickly observed what the customers wanted.
“Initially we did promotions encouraging customer to sign up that day and receive a fourth box of produce free, but nobody was signing up.
“Then we realised having a sign up option was putting people off. It just seemed to frighten them so we stopped it and when people realised there was no buy-in motive it started to work.”
Customers are able to buy the farm’s produce and also a wide range of fruit, salads and eggs thanks to their relationships with other suppliers via Ron’s wholesale market.
The business is also working with Student Grub, an online initiative which offers recipes and the accompanying products to enable students to eat well each week while on a budget.
Sheila supplies the fresh produce from the recipes and recently sent 1,200 welcome boxes to Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Liverpool.
As they await planning permission to build new offices on-site, the wholesale market, the farm and The Cabbage Box all feature heavily in their quest to grow their market and improve profitability.
With no shortage of family members, the unit enjoys a work/life balance which enables them to work effectively together.
“We are so lucky there are so many of us in the family. If I need to go to school to watch a play or Roy needs to go the dentist or there are holidays, we know we are covered and vice versa. And that keeps everybody happy.
“If it was just Roy and I there would be no flexibility and having a good work/life balance keeps us motivated and focused.”