The Sorrie family’s desire to “do things differently” goes a long way to explaining their win in the Business Diversification sector of this year’s Scottish Rural Awards. Ewan Pate reports.
Husband and wife team John and Connie Sorrie only started farming in 2000.
Up until then, John, who has a degree in electronic engineering, worked as an underwater engineer in the North Sea.
He says: “I had been brought up on the farm here at Inverurie, and it had always been part of our lives. But when we took over the farm we decided to do things differently.
“We could see that the farming industry often had a traditional approach to what it did, but we wanted to produce what the market wanted.”
The first crop to attract the couple’s attention was oilseed rape. It is a crop that is well suited to the arable parts of Aberdeenshire and the Sorries already grew it on their 100-hectare (247-acre) farm.
Connie says: “We could see there was an opportunity to add value to what was already a top-quality crop, so we became the first people in Scotland to cold press our own rape seed. It was a real trial and error business because there was no one else to ask.
“The first machine we bought only had a Chinese instruction book, so that wasn’t much help .”
Marketing was hard work too, initially. The decision, which is still adhered to today, was made not to supply multiple retailers, but to concentrate on local markets for the oil, which was to be sold under their own Ola brand.
“I just loaded up the car boot and drove round local shops and delicatessens, explaining the local provenance and the health benefits of our oil,” says John.
“The car boot was always empty when I arrived home and it has grown from there.”
Now the original Ola oil, and a range of infusions, salad dressings and sauces developed over the years, is sold at retail outlets throughout north east Scotland and further afield using online ordering.
John and Connie’s son-in-law and daughter, James and Chloe Ogg, joined the firm six years ago and run the expanding Ola business.
“Building up a family business was very important to us,” John says. “Family businesses don’t get the good press they deserve. They should be praised more.”
The design of the oilseed pressing line owes much to John’s engineering skills, especially his latest development.
The meal, which is a by-product of the process, has a well-recognised feed value for livestock, but he could see its untapped potential as a fuel.
A little research showed briquettes made from rape meal produced 22 megajoules per kilogram, compared to 18-20 from coal and only eight from wet logs. Added to that, using rape meal as fuel is inherently carbon neutral.
The attractions were obvious enough to encourage John to set about making his own briquette making machine.
Sold in boxes of 12, with each briquette weighing 1.1 kg, it is proving popular with domestic stove owners.
The next step forward for the business came in 2013 when a greengrocer’s shop in Inverurie’s West High Street became available. It seemed an ideal opportunity to expand the concept of a family-orientated business.
The shop was purchased, and their son, John Jnr, who had previously worked as communications manager with ANM Group at Thainstone, was brought on board as manager of the new enterprise.
The takeover was lightning quick. The Green Grocer name, with its slightly eco- friendly twist, was retained, but that was about all.
The shop closed on a Saturday and was opened again the following Thursday having been completely refitted mostly by the family.
The shop now provides employment for 10 staff and operates partly as a traditional greengrocer.
Much of the effort, however, goes into packing and delivering vegetable boxes with deliveries made three days a week all around the north east of Scotland. The number of boxes ordered soared from 20 per week to several hundred and there is now a waiting list.
“People are planning meals around their weekly vegetable box,” says Connie.
“They appreciate the personal service and enjoy a chat, which is how it should be”.
The Green Grocer is a fully stocked shop and of course stocks the full range of Ola oils.
Customers can also buy their oil in one litre glass bottles with a Kilner lid. These can be brought back for refilling from a dispenser the shop at a saving of £2 per litre compared to a one-trip bottle.
The story does not stop with the purchase of the shop, however.
Firstly, the Sorries won the Business Diversification section in The Scottish Rural Awards in Edinburgh on March 21, an initiative supported jointly by Countryside Alliance, Royal
Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS) and Scottish Field magazine.
The judges said: “We were won over by the story of a harmonious family business where each member had different job to do.”
Secondly, John and Connie’s search for something new led them to experiment with something very old.
They had been selling spelt flour in the shop and the couple wondered if the crop could be grown in Scotland.
Spelt is an ancient type of wheat which has been cultivated for more than 7,000 years. In fact, it is one of the parents of modern cereals.
John began his research in Europe and discovered that it was still grown commercially in modest quantities in Germany and Scandinavia, where it is prized for its bread making quality.
As well as making a dough that rises quickly, spelt products are easy to digest making them suitable for those with gluten intolerance.
It turned out that seed was available, so in autumn 2017 John sowed his first plot. It turned out to yield similarly to the farm’s spring barley and to need very few chemical inputs.
“I believe this is because of the extremely thick husk which keeps pests and diseases away from the grain,” says John.
“The crop was autumn sown and only needed one pre-emergence herbicide.”
He actually has no spelt in the ground this year, having enough from the 2018 harvest to keep him going, but he will sow some this coming autumn now that he has demand.
It is harvested about the same time as spring barley, which in Aberdeenshire is early September.
The farm is not organic, but farming with fewer chemicals appeals for the family.
Despite its proximity to the outskirts of the bustling town of Inverurie the farm hosts lapwings, curlews and grey and red-legged partridge. One field in particular has been home to curlews every year since John’s boyhood.
The extraordinarily tough husk on the spelt may be a benefit in terms of crop protection, but it makes processing the grain challenging. Indeed, it may well explain why it fell out of favour.
“It certainly didn’t thresh easily, but there was surely a solution waiting to be found,” John says.
“I decided to make my own de-hulling machine.”
With years of experience in electrical and mechanical engineering, and a good supply of patience, John was able to design such a device.
The husks are indeed tough, but a trickle fed beater encased in a very robust purpose-built mesh concave is proving capable of literally separating the wheat from the chaff.
A 7.5kW electric motor drives the beater and a separate motor blows the husks through ducting into a trailer outside the building.
The process is not fast, but it is fully automated and can run for long periods unattended.
The de-hulled spelt, which has a small grain size compared to modern wheat, is then transported to the historic Golspie Mill in Sutherland. This is the only working commercial water-powered mill in Scotland and uses solid granite milling wheels to provide stone ground products.
The now rather special product then makes the journey back to Inverurie for packing under the Sorrie’s Westfield Farms brand.
It then sold through the shop, to local delis and artisan bakers, or online.
It may be early days yet but, if the family’s success with their Ola oil products is anything to go by, demand for their spelt flour can only go one way, and that is up.