Crowd funding is now seen as a fairly commonplace way to raise money, but it is not often used to finance large scale projects.
That has not however deterred Fife buffalo farmer Stevie Mitchell. Ewan Pate meets him to find out more.
Stevie Mitchell is currently seeking £800,000 of funding, mostly from his existing customer base, to part-finance the establishment of Scotland’s first buffalo mozzarella processing plant.
And he is well on the way to meeting his target.
He also plans to start a dairy buffalo herd which he will run alongside his well-established beef buffalo herd at Boglily Farm near Kirkcaldy.
The new mozzarella cheese factory will have enough capacity to process buffalo milk from other farmers should they decide to start their own herds.
West Fife, where Stevie farms, is an area with a strong tradition in dairy farming.
But this is not his first attempt at moving into the soft cheese business. Stevie, 37, has a high profile as an innovative farmer including being featured in two series of BBC’s This Farming Life.
Last year he was shown taking delivery of 92 dairy buffalo maiden heifers from Holland.
These were to be the basis of his new herd and he also showed the planned site of a milking parlour and mozzarella processing unit.
The plans fell through, however, when a potential business partner suddenly withdrew, leaving Stevie short of the necessary finance.
The heifers, by now in-calf, had to be sold back to Holland.
“Fortunately, the demand there for dairy buffalo is very strong at the moment,” says Stevie.
“Phosphate and nitrogen restrictions have forced some farmer to reduce dairy cow numbers and they are moving into buffalo milk production instead.
“Dairy buffalo cost about 30 per cent more to keep than beef buffalo, but they can produce 4,000 to 5,000 litres of high butterfat milk in a 250-day lactation.
“It is an ideal basis for making really good quality mozzarella. It is a very different product from mozzarella made from cow’s milk.”
The setback of a false start might have put many people off, but Stevie is used to meeting challenges.
His business, which now employs 45 staff, started with just a good idea and the opportunity to rent some land only 14 years ago.
His meat buffalo herd and retailing operation soon became well known and has since expanded into a butchery, a farm shop, a cafe and two satellite butchers’ counters in other farm shops.
The next stage will take him into dairy production and will fulfil a long-held ambition.
“If I had a pound for every time I have been asked why I don’t produce mozzarella I would have been able to do this from my own pocket,” he says.
Things do not work out that way unfortunately, but perhaps crowdfunding is the nearest option.
Stevie and his professional advisors worked out that the best way to organise this is was to offer three levels of commitment.
A key feature of all three options is that the crowdfunded amount is refundable when the membership, which lasts a minimum of four years, comes to an end.
Also, the return on the investment is not paid in cash, but in vouchers redeemable in the farm shop. Mostly these will be for meat orders with beef, lamb, pork and of course buffalo on offer.
With the Founders Club and the Executive Club offering notional rates of return of 10 per cent and 12 per cent respectively, these are attractive options, especially at time of low returns on cash savings.Stevie is also keen to hear from anyone wishing to take an equity or debt stake in the new venture.
He has manged to secure £576,263 of funding from the Processing and Marketing Grant Scheme (PMGS) to go towards the project.
As of mid-October, crowdfunding pledges stood at £556,000 with £244,000 still sought. But there is some time pressure with the PMGS offer lapsing on March 31, 2020.
Just to add to the excitement of starting the new project Stevie’s wife Sarah gave birth to Harry, their first child, on the very day the crowdfunding was launched.
The plan is to lock into the UK mozzarella market which is currently worth £79 million and growing at 12 per cent per year.
The new processing plant will have the capacity to make 520,000kg per year of the soft cheese.
A herd of 100 dairy buffalo will produce just over half the milk required with the balance coming in time from other producers.
The project has a projected revenue of £6.6m and should support 16 new jobs. The crowdfunded amounts are being held in a separate bank account under the control of two independent trustees and can be refunded should the project not go ahead.
Stevie regards that as an unlikely prospect, however, and he is hugely buoyed by the response so far.
“I expected it be mainly from our local customer base, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the positive response from our online customers all around the UK,” Stevie says.
“The public always followed us without invitation right from the start when we began the buffalo herd.
“Our first butcher’s shop was in Kennoway, but when we moved it here to the farm at Boglily our customers were surprised that we hadn’t put in a coffee shop and cafe.
“So, we converted an old loft, which was nearly derelict, into a cafe and then added a new kitchen. That is typical of the way the business has grown over the years.
“We now have a turnover in excess of £3.5m. Raith Estates has been very important to us all the way through renting us land and then buildings.”
Social media has played a huge part in raising the profile of the business.
As well as a 10,000-strong mailing list, the Buffalo Farm Facebook page has 48,000 followers and a fast-growing Instagram account.
Stevie has based his business a Boglily Farm, which is less than a mile from Kirkcaldy and not far from other well-populated West Fife towns. The footfall on the farm is little short of amazing.
This spring an online invitation to customers to bring their children to see and cuddle the year’s crop of pygmy goat kids encouraged up to 500 visitors a day, overwhelming the car park and requiring buses to be laid on from Kirkcaldy.
It is all a far cry from 2005 when the first beef buffalo arrived on the farm. Now there are 100 breeding females with the progeny finished on the farm.
Sold on flavour, low cholesterol and low saturated fat, the meat is now sold retail and through Stevie’s own private hire catering unit.
Beef buffalo are managed similarly to beef cattle and are subject to all the same regulations as regards tagging and bovine TB testing. The cows, however, have a gestation period of 10 months and the calves mature slowly producing a 300kg carcase between 24 and 30 months of age.
Slaughter and processing are carried out at Millers of Speyside and the meat is dry aged.
Stevie has noted that the dairy buffalo, although producing more milk, still have a very similar conformation to the beef type and he expects similar carcase weight and quality from their male progeny.
In all he farms 223 hectares (550 acres), all rented from Raith Estates, with most in grass for grazing and conservation.Hay and silage are sold each year, with 12ha (30 acres) of winter rye grown for grain production. There is also a flock of 140 Jacob ewes.
It is at heart a farming operation which is focused on satisfying its retail customers.
And all being well they will soon have home-produced mozzarella to add to their shopping bags.
Supporters Club - Membership £100
Opportunity to buy from the first batch of mozzarella
Tour of the farm and other benefits
Capital refundable at end of membership ( min four year)
Founders Club - Membership £1000 minimum
Product vouchers equal to 10% of membership issued annually
Complimentary pack from first batch of mozzarella
Capital refundable at end of membership (min four years)
Executive Club – Membership £10,000 minimum.
Product vouchers equal to 12% of membership annually but available monthly.
Capital refundable at end of membership (min four years)