As the New Year gets underway and peoples’ attention turns to their waistlines, we meet one farmer who is benefiting from the ‘clean-eating’ trend after recognising the need to give his vegetables an alternative market. Emily Scaife reports.
It is January, which can mean only one thing – widespread post-Christmas guilt and the forming of New Year’s resolutions to offset it.
After the excesses of the festive season, people’s attention unfailingly turns to diet and fitness.
It is felt more keenly perhaps this year, as 2015 was a breakthrough period for healthy eating, as consumers’ attention turned away from fast food and convenience, moving towards cooking from scratch and opting for wholesome ingredients. The role of ‘superfoods’ most definitely moved up the agenda and enjoyed endless media coverage along the way.
One trend which particularly gathered pace was juicing vegetables and fruit, causing sales of kale and spinach to shoot through the roof as people embraced the clean-eating movement.
It was a stroke a luck, or bad luck to be more precise, which led to Philip Maddocks capitalising on the healthy trend.
The third-generation Shropshire farmer first came up with the idea after his spinach crop was battered by a freak hailstorm, rendering it unacceptable for his supermarket customers.
Philip says: “When you’re faced with a crop which is nutritionally perfect but aesthetically not fit for market, it sets your mind to thinking outside the field as it were.
“As a family, we are extremely interested in food and nutrition, so juicing was already an established family favourite.
“When the crop damage occurred it was a bit of light-bulb moment, starting my journey into investigating the world of juicing from a commercial angle, which resulted in the launch of B.fresh in November 2014.”
Philip began pulling a team together to bring B.fresh to life through the juice recipe development, brand design and subsequent launch.
He made a multi-million pound investment using his own capital in order to be the first British grower and producer to embrace a new process using non-thermal technology to retain the juice’s vitamins and nutrients, while giving it a longer shelf life than those produced using traditional pasteurisation methods. Additionally, the inclusion of vegetables, makes them naturally lower in sugar.
Wherever possible, B.fresh uses produce grown on the home farm, made up of 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of owned and rented ground in Shropshire, or sources them from neighbouring businesses where seasonality and climate allow. The only exception to this rule is citrus fruits, which will always have to be sourced.
Philip was well placed to do this, having achieved considerable success with his salad business, PDM, one of the UK’s leading specialist lettuce and baby leaf growers, which supplies supermarkets and food processors.
‘Britishness’ is the cornerstone of the brand; Philip used his two decades’ worth of experience to create a range which he hopes will provide his customers with the ‘juice of the land’.
“We all know how important it is to support British farming wherever possible, and I believe consumers are interested in the back story and honesty of brands, more so today than ever,” Philip says.
“Because our story is so simple yet compelling, it is important to highlight the British origins with our made on-farm message.”
The juice market had been suffering a decline in sales before the trend took off. Previously, most consumers were operating under the illusion fruit juice was a healthy alternative to fizzy drinks.
However at the beginning of 2014, the media was quick to put people right as scientists revealed fruit juice often contains as much sugar as a fizzy drink, saying it should be swapped for a piece of real fruit in order to see any health benefits.
Consumers had no idea which juices were really low in sugar or which were actually healthy.
“The industry is changing and there’s potential to attract consumers back into the fresh juice category, with a clear and honest message,” Philip says.
“There is much confusion in the chilled juice category at consumer level and therefore mistrust."
“This was shown in the sales decline of 5 per cent, seen across the market. We want to deliver what the mainstream consumer needs; tasty, freshly-produced, healthy juice.”
Last year’s juicing trend reversed this decline, with many people, including Philip, determined to rebuild its reputation.
“We want to encourage consumers to enjoy on-the-go healthy drinks and highlight the benefits of cold pressed juices – placing it firmly back in their minds as a healthier, higher-quality way to get one of their five a day,” he says.
“The B.fresh story is simple; we farm great quality produce and source the same high standard of ingredients we cannot grow from other local farms.” Or, as B.fresh likes to call it, an ‘own-grown or known-grown’ policy.
It is the production process which makes the company particularly special and unique – investing in a bespoke juicing facility on his farm, Philip was the first British grower to embrace the so-called high pressure process (HPP).
First, juices are cold-pressed after the produce has arrived directly from the field; no purees or concentrates are allowed.
Produce is washed in natural spring water from the farm before being chopped and put through the press without using any heat.
The latter point is particularly important as it allows juice to retain the highest level of nutrients, vitamins and minerals possible. In other words, it is the closest thing to a raw juice which the team can feasibly and safely create.
“Many other commercial fresh juices are either made from concentrate or heat-processed to preserve it, thereby significantly reducing the healthy nutrients,” Philip explains.”
The real benefit of HPP is it is gives the juice a longer shelf life. Unlike pasteurisation, it does not alter the taste or reduce the nutritional benefits, but it does rid the product of bacteria, yeasts and moulds.
Bottles are then put into a high-pressure chamber which is flooded with cold water and subjected to three minutes of high-pressure – the equivalent of five times the pressure in the deepest ocean.
This huge investment allowed Philip to carve out a niche in an increasingly saturated market.
He says: “As a farmer I am passionate about British vegetables and fruit, including them in their purest form into your diet and the importance of provenance. Our juices are the closest thing to a raw juice with the advantage of shelf life.”
A year after its launch, B.fresh is already producing about 5,000 litres a week.
Complementing the existing farm business, already well-known for its ability to grow and procure high-quality produce, this established farming operation had all the necessary skills to capitalise on a modern trend.
It is this provenance and the state-of-the-art techniques used which gives the business its unique selling point.
“We are all trying harder to tread lightly across the planet with the movement of food,” says Philip.
“By making as much of the produce as climate and seasonality will allow, we aim to keep our carbon footprint low.”
The firm offers juices for every kind of consumer, from #sweetgreens which contains 75 per cent apple, making it more suited for entry-level consumers who have not managed to shake off their sweet tooth, to the more ‘advanced’ juices such as #leanandgreen, which is made up of celery, cucumber, romaine lettuce, spinach, kale with a touch of ginger and lemon.
Philip and his 14-strong team, believe the emphasis on honesty and transparency have secured their place in the juice sector – and the fact the juices are now stocked in retailers including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Whole Foods and Ocado would certainly support this view.
A recent redesign of the bottle put its provenance centre stage; the label proudly announces the juice is ‘made on our farm’, once again proving home-grown British produce is a sure-fire way to secure consumers’ trust.