As with many farmers, Colin Bradley found large-scale farming production margins being squeezed and so opted to move further along the supply chain.
He teamed up with two business partners who specialised in processing and finance to set up a potato processing business - Fylde Fresh and Fabulous.
The business provides ready to cook potatoes, peeled and prepared in the on-site factory, to production companies and chip shops across northern England, the east coast and stretching into London.
Developing other ideas as the business grew has made the Lancashire farm the busy and impressive venture it is today.
Mr Bradley says: “We have lots of other competitors but none of them take it from the field to the factory. This is our unique selling point.”
Mr Bradley has been growing potatoes for more than 20 years and farms 364 hectares (900 acres) of potatoes from a base on the Fylde coast, with all of the crop grown for the Fylde Fresh and Fabulous factory.
A proportion of potato land is rented and is dotted around the North of England. There is a percentage in Carlisle, where the business has been able to find some virgin land, which helps to limit the development of pests and diseases in the potato crop.
The processing business prepares potatoes as fresh chips for catering along with potato product ready meals, including diced potatoes for stews and soups, sliced for hotpots and ready peeled for mashing.
These products are then are packed in 10kg bags, ready to be distributed to UK chip shops, catering wholesalers and ready meal manufacturers. In total there are about 10 to 15 different cuts, otherwise known as lines, which the company is able to prepare for different markets.
Set up in 2005, Fylde Fresh and Fabulous was successful in obtaining a Defra Processing and Marketing grant under the England Rural Development Programme.
This provided a proportion of the capital investment required for the new business. With £600,000 of the partners’ own capital, total investment into the factory came to £1.7 million.
Commercial manager Simon Leaver who joined Mr Bradley in 2003, describes setting up the new business as ‘challenging but satisfying’.
The ‘field to fork’ business ethic means every finished product can be fully traced back to the field and a specific growing regime. In terms of supply management, the business has 10,000 tonnes of storage, which is normally filled with Mr Bradley’s own production.
He estimates a further 8,000 tonnes of potatoes are brought in over the year from a number of sources, including farmers and merchants.
In most years, most of the home-grown crop will achieve the required quality specification, says Mr Bradley.
He says: “Most of our crop meets the required specification of 20 per cent dry matter. If it does not meet this, we will sell the crop to another market where it does and then source some more which meets our needs.”
Different varieties suit different uses, Mr Bradley adds, but Maris Piper is the preferred variety with the ready meal market, solely because of brand recognition.
Mr Leaver says: “Supermarkets recognise consumers know the variety and associate it with quality.
“From a grower’s perspective, Maris Piper is not the easiest. There are definitely others which are preferred but we need to meet demands and Maris Piper fits those.
“However, other varieties which do not have the same growing issues are well received by chip shops.”
It has not all been plain sailing for the company in procurement terms though, with last year’s harvest season in particular proving to be a difficult one.
In a challenging season for many growers, it was a struggle to find the quality and quantity of potatoes needed, says Mr Leaver, who handles procurement for Fylde Fresh and Fabulous.
He says: “Our own yields were down by 30 per cent on previous years and there were 32.4ha (80 acres) we did not even manage to get out of the ground.
“Those which were lifted on time stored well but the later ones were very bad. We suffered a lot of blackleg and disease.
“There was a point in October when we only had one day’s worth of production for the factory and normally we like to have a week’s worth in store.
Nobody wanted to dig as conditions were so bad.
“Through January and February we struggled as stock was expensive. But after this we managed to source it.”
While the chip trade is quite seasonal, demand for ready meals also varies, so lines complement each other, enabling consistent production volumes to be maintained.
The factory can produce 300 tonnes of finished product a week, which is then dispatched around the country. Stock is distributed by Triple F, a separate company also owned by Mr Bradley and partners. Triple F runs a fleet of two articulated lorries and two Class 2 lorries alongside seven vans.
In addition to potatoes, the farm rotation incorporates barley, wheat, oilseed rape, beans and grass. In what Mr Bradley describes as an ‘opportunist’ move this season, much of the wheat crop was harvested early as wholecrop, enabling him to drill stubble turnips which will provide fodder for a new livestock enterprise.
“Originally, we sold forage off the 46.5ha (115 acres) of grass fields, but this year, my farm manager Sam Patterson and I have decided to venture into livestock, starting with some store lambs, which will graze the turnips and grass,” he says.
The farm’s diversification activities have been developed further with the setting up of a trout fishery on a lake at the farm.
Control of this has been handed over to Mr Bradley’s daughter Clair and her partner Alex Young, who in turn have set up Stanley Villa Farm Camping, offering country escapes or a party venue.
So where does this multi-faceted company hope to be in the next year?
Mr Leaver says: “Expansion is certainly an aim for us. We hope to install another processing line to increase capacity as we still have the space to expand.”
In the meantime, developments include the installation of an anaerobic digester, which, as it will use waste potatoes as a feedstock, will help with waste management and cut electricity costs.
Waste potatoes are currently sold for animal feed.
While Mr Bradley clearly has an eye for spotting a diversification opportunity, he urges fellow farmers to consider all options before commencing with a diversification project.
He says: “It is one of the more challenging aspects of my career. A farm diversification needs total commitment and a good specialised team to help you.”