A keen eye for the ‘next big thing’ prompted farmer Anthony Froggatt to launch his own brand of cold-pressed rapeseed oil and crisps. Emily Scaife finds out what he has learned.
Anthony Froggatt is testament to where hard work and taking risks can get you, and how even the most challenging of situations can be transformed into an opportunity.
“When farmers moan about the price I always think there’s no point – just do something about it,” he says.
But he is quick to point out that the success of his diversifications, Just Oil and Just Crisps, did not happen overnight – it has taken blood, sweat, tears, sleepless nights and a lot of luck to get to where he is today, and the journey is not over yet.
Anthony decided to expand the scope of the family business, Wade Lane Farm in Staffordshire, after foot-and-mouth in 2001. The farm had 1,000 sheep, but because his parents had reached retirement age and the arable side was growing, he made the decision to cut his losses, let a lot of grassland go and reduce the farm from 405 hectares (1,000 acres) to 283ha (700 acres).
By 2005, however, things started looking up. The price of oilseed rape was at roughly £136/tonne, so Anthony began looking into producing fuel from the crop. “I did that for a few months until the price of oilseed rape went up and it wasn’t viable anymore,” he says. “But then I read an article in the Daily Telegraph about food items which were becoming more popular and cold pressed rapeseed oil was featured.
“By then we were already doing it, but only for our own use. So I went out, bought a pallet of bottles, got a guy down the road to make us some labels, produced a batch by hand and then chucked a load of oil in the boot of my car and made my way to some local farm shops.” Initially, Anthony admits he found it tough.
“Any fool can make a product – it’s selling it that’s the problem,” he says. “At the time no-one had really heard of cold pressed rapeseed oil and it was a real battle.” The turning point came when Anthony joined the now defunct Heart of England Fine Foods, which helped him immeasurably.
“We were given a grant so we could rebrand and launch a website,” he says. “We attended a meet the buyers event which was a bit like speed-dating. “My second sit down was with a woman from Tesco – she said they were looking for some cold-pressed rapeseed oil, so we liaised with them and started supplying them quite quickly.”
What started off as a weekend hobby now supplies Tesco, Amazon and numerous independents. But, more recently, a significant amount stays on-farm and goes into the business’ newer venture – the introduction of crisp production.
“We really needed another income stream on the farm because there are currently three generations here,” Anthony explains. “At that time the premium crisp market was growing and I felt we had a USP because we were, and still are, the only crisp producers in the UK using our own oil and the only ones using cold-pressed oil.”
Yet similar to the oil it has not been smooth sailing and has been a steep learning curve. “I was naive and thought that because we had a unique USP we would be successful,” he admits. “But our crisps are expensive to make – pretty much everyone else is using cheap, imported sunflower oil.
It’s all to do with price and there are very small margins.” He admits he has had a few sleepless nights over the project, but five years on the cloud is beginning to lift. “We don’t supply supermarkets because we can’t compete with other producers on price,” he says. “When people walk down a supermarket aisle they’re focused on price – our oil can compete with anything else on the shelves, but our crisps can’t so we mostly supply independent stores and pubs.
“We’re currently installing a new production line, so we will triple production from 200 boxes a day to more than 600 and hopefully cut our costs.”
Always on the lookout for the ‘next big thing’, there is not a food trend Anthony has not considered, but he very deliberately only chooses projects which suit the farm and business.
A recently launched product is linseed oil, which is sold to horse and dog owners. About 12ha (30 acres) of winter linseed is now established on the farm and the product will be sold through Amazon and eBay. A range of roasted peas and beans are another current endeavour.
UK-sourced and then roasted in Just Oil on the farm, they are purchased from other growers as beans would not fit into the current rotation. Going back to their roots, sheep have also returned to the site. “We didn’t have any sheep for 10 years, but we’ve now got 120 Welsh Mules – I had the bright idea that if my son was going to understand farming then sheep would be a good introduction,” Anthony says.
“I do wonder why we’re doing it, but we are.” The business is also passionate about farming in accordance with the environment. “My Dad was an early convert to this way of thinking, winning the Silver Lapwing Award about 30 years ago,” Anthony says. “We’ve been in Countryside Stewardship for 14 years and we’ve planted more than a mile of hedges. “We also have about 14 hives, so we could potentially use the honey in a product such as honey and mustard dressing.”
Dedication to the environment and passion for the farm are key parts of the Froggatt family’s brand. “We do lots of local food events – customers love the fact they know where our products come from and that’s what we trade on.”
The obvious question at this point is how much Anthony has invested into building his business up. He does not know the exact total but is certain it is a significant amount. “Anything made out of stainless steel which is shiny costs a lot,” he jokes.
However, he divulges he has never taken out a loan. “We’re entirely self-funded,” he says. “We have bought things slowly as we’ve gone along, and we haven’t really taken any money out of the business, we’ve just built it up.” His advice to other farmers considering embarking on a similar project is to think carefully about how much time and money they want to invest.
“Farmers are not always that great at talking to people, but you’ve got to be prepared to stand and sell your product,” he says. “You’ve got to be prepared to go the extra mile. And bear in mind you will always underestimate how much time and money it will cost.”
Anthony believes cutting local food groups’ funding was a mistake which will disadvantage farmers hoping to embark on similar projects in the future. “Mine really helped me – I knew next to nothing,” he says. “It was an amazing organisation and I hope they will be resurrected.”
He says although the next few years look uncertain, he is hopeful once the UK is out of the EU the Government will look at the food and farming industry again. “I’m hopeful we have future- proofed ourselves slightly by diversifying,” he says. “My advice to other farmers would be to keep costs to a minimum, keep labour down and run a tight ship.”