Many farming businesses, to their credit, take part in community and charitable ventures, but few have embraced the concept as comprehensively as the Stirling family at Upper Dysart, near Montrose. Ewan Pate reports.
Andrew and Anita Stirling and their four children, Jessica (28), Alexander (27), Hannah (25) and James (19), have decided their commitment to supplying food to community hubs across Angus should carry on after the Covid-19 pandemic is over.
For many years, the family food business has tried to support local communities as much as possible, so when the pandemic hit last year, thoughts quickly turned to how it could help.
Andrew says: “We have been very lucky in work and health and over the years we have been happy to sponsor local sports teams and charities in Scotland. We try to support our community as much as possible.
“When the pandemic hit, we wanted to supply our cooked baking potatoes and soup packs to charities. They are local and traditional products with the bonus of being easy to make.
“We were already supplying NHS sites across Tayside, Fife and Grampian, so we offered to put produce into hospitals for staff to collect free as they came off shift.
“It meant they had something easy and nutritious to cook when they got home. This worked, but it took time to set up and we could see there was room for improvement.”
Andrew and Anita took over the 182 hectares (450 acres) at Upper Dysart in 2008. After spliting off from a larger family business, they quickly diversified into producing prepared potatoes, vegetables and ready meals.
Their Stirfresh enterprise, which is in the process of rebranding as Upper Dysart Larder, has since grown to the extent that it employs 70 staff, with all four of Andrew and Anita’s children working in different areas of the business and helping drive it forward.
Supermarket chain Aldi is now a major customer, with Stirfresh packing all the potatoes for its Scottish stores.
But to ensure continuity for their community food initiative, the Stirlings have employed a project co-ordinator to work within the business.
They had already crossed paths with charity volunteer Teresa Spark at the Montrose Community Hub and, after a meeting with Julian Paice and Julia Latto of Scottish Enterprise Redesigning Rural, a two-month pilot scheme was set up.
Andrew already knew the Scottish Enterprise team well through his participation in the Rural Leadership Scheme. As part of the pilot, Teresa moved part-time on to the payroll at Upper Dysart.
Her task is to liaise with 14 different organisations in Angus, all running soup kitchens at community hubs.
Deliveries are made by Stirfresh’s own vehicles as part of their daily delivery routes.
Uptake has been very high, with one outlet taking delivery of 400 ready baked potatoes every fortnight.
Andrew says: “Our aim was a pot of soup in every town free for anyone. We mean to help feed as many people as we can, especially children, but really any individual or family which is struggling.
“Teresa is currently working with us three days-a-week, contacting lots of groups around Angus to work with them to achieve our goal. This helps organise everything, as well as ensuring the relevant certifications and resources are in place.”
In one instance, a potential outlet felt it could not take part because it lacked a working refrigerator, but Andrew made sure a replacement was in place within days.
Meanwhile, Stirfresh is going through the major task of rebranding to become Upper Dysart Larder, partly to capitalise on the growing popularity of online shopping direct to consumers.
It is a trend which has grown rapidly thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Stirlings were already aware of a growing awareness locally of what they had to offer.
Linking the brand to the farm where much of the produce is grown seemed a good way to emphasise its provenance.
The intention is that the retail customers will also have the chance, if they so wish, to support the company’s charitable activities by crowdfunding, donating through a Just Giving page or donating produce as they make their own purchases.
At the same time, the family is expanding its product range, particularly in mashed potato products.
New equipment is being installed and a technique developed which will result in a fresh product with a 30-day shelf life.
Andrew says: “This should open up new markets for us with, for example, airlines, fishing boats and offshore sites.”
Alongside all the new activity, Aldi remains an important customer, with Andrew praising the company’s commitment to Scottish produce.
The potatoes packed at Upper Dysart are all grown on the farm or on nearby land and all the vegetables for the diced packs and soups are Scottish.
Andrew says: “We started in 2008 by washing potatoes on a small scale and delivering them in a horse box.
We were like most farms in that we grew crops hoping others would have a poor year and prices would rise.
“I am glad we have moved on from that mindset and that we have been able to cut out the middleman.”
The signs of the expansion are easy to see. Upper Dysart farm steading, with its commanding view over Lunan Bay and the North Sea, has now become an ever-expanding modern food processing site working 24 hours-a-day.
Many of the staff are Eastern Europeans who now have settled status. Others are local, but Andrew makes a special point of paying tribute to them all for their contribution to the company’s growth and especially for their commitment to the charitable activities.
He says: “Our family has been very supportive too. Last Christmas, I suggested we all go to Arbroath to help serve lunch at a community cafe which we supply.
“There were a few grumps about it cutting into our family Christmas Day, but I assured them we would only be there for half-an-hour or so. In fact, we stayed for two-and-a-half hours. We thought it was one of the best things we had ever done.
“Our success so far means we are going to continue employing Teresa and continue with the project. But it is important to ask, as we supply food to those in need, why are these people requiring help and who is letting them down?”