Priding themselves on originality and a swift response to emerging trends, the Fermor family made a pioneering decision which has seen them reap the fruits of their labour, as Jack Watkins discovered when he visited the Kent farm.
The Fermor family can boast an impressive exclusivity, claiming to be the first British producer of air-dried fruit crisps. Spotting a gap in the dried fruit snacks market, dominated by American imports, enabled them to make rapid progress in a short space of time. Having gone on sale in 2011, Perry Court Farm fruit crisps are now pro- ducing sales of 1.5 million a year.
The crisps are sold to schools and stocked by health food shops, such as Holland and Barrett. They are also sold at London farmers’ markets, at which Perry Court maintains a weekly presence, as well as in its own farm shop. But the Fermors have always tried to stay one step ahead of the market and, with more competition arriving in the dried fruit products sector, they have opened up a new front, thanks to their additional focus on producing dried fruit for ingredients manufacturers. Charlie Fermor, who runs the farm with his father Martin, mother Heidi and wife Lorenza, says the flexible approach dates back to his grand- father Lionel, who bought the farm near Ashford, Kent, in 1947.
Charlie says: “My grandfather was into hops, top and soft fruits and ar- able. If a particular product was going to do well, such as apples, he was very quick to foresee that and move into it.
“The business grew very quickly and it meant over the years we’ve been able to expand by buying up neighbouring farms.”
With part of the farm being on the same chalk seam that runs through the Champagne region of France, unsurprisingly, fruit growing bec- ame the major focus. But 25 years ago, there was a major drive towards direct selling to the public.
Charlie says: “We were growing about 600 acres of strawberries for supermarkets, but there was an over- supply and we got a lorryload rejected for very little reason.
“Dad decided enough was enough and we stopped growing for super-markets. We survived selling wholesale for a bit, but this was around the time of the first farmers’ markets in London. We went into that in such a big way that we’re now doing about 50/week, all in the capital.
“The farm shop also took off around that time, which allowed us to extend our fruit acreage. We were able to produce exactly the same volume of crops and sell it ourselves rather than to supermarkets.”
While working on the farm, Charlie had already been experimenting with drying fruit as a way of mini- mising wastage. At the time he was also studying agriculture at Reading University and the course’s partial emphasis on food marketing enabled him to investigate it further. He was convinced it could provide the farm with a new outlet.
Charlie says: “About a decade ago, dried fruit bars were a great trend, but all of them were coming in from the United States.
“The first product we decided to make at Perry Court Farm was our own fruit bar. We went down the whole production route only to find a problem with VAT.
You have to pay VAT on a fruit bar, but not if you cut it into smaller pieces. So we came up with the idea of the apple crisps instead, the first of their kind in the UK.
“We’d wanted something a little different and the kids’ healthy food market interested us.
"The idea was to take the dried fruit and make it more attractive for children by cutting it into interesting shapes and drying the apples a little bit further so they became crispy.”
After a couple of years of trialling in the farm shop and at farmers’ markets, the first packaged crisps went on sale in 2011.
“Within a year, we’d changed the packet again to a smaller size. The first one was an unattractively designed big green thing.
“It fell at the first hurdle with many retailers, so we got a professional designer to come in, and we haven’t changed the look since. Sales just took off.” The drying machine, specially designed in America, was a major investment.
Charlie says: “It was basically a prune drier, with three chipping con- tainers added. It took about six months to make and get into position here. “We bought it for about $250,000, but the current exchange rate would make it a tricky proposition to afford now.”
As well as the crisps being a long-lived product, with a shelf life of one year, production gave new life to the farm’s ageing apple orchards. He says: “Some were becoming derelict and we were thinking of rip- ping them out and planting them with arable crops.”
Now, pear crisps, as well as apple, strawberry, raspberry and blueberry fruit bars, have extended the product and flavour range, but success has led to more competitors moving in on their market. Charlie describes one company’s effort as blatant plagiarising.
“With fruit bars and crisps, you don’t have to say where the ingredi- ents come from. It will say packaged in the UK, but the ingredients may have come from China or South Africa, where they produce at a cheaper cost. At the moment, there’s nothing to protect us from that.
“We’ve taken a step back from the branding aspect and tried to focus more on ingredients, selling to manufacturers such as Nestle and Mondelez.
“We’d often been asked for apple crisps as an ingredient for mueslis and cereals and turned it down because we were too busy, but now we are able to ramp up our supply because our base cost of production has decreased thanks to economies of scale.
“We produce apple dust now, which is apple crisps ground into a powder to where it gets to such a fineness it doesn’t taste like apple and just acts as a sweetener.
“Another one is apple fibre, made from apple peel, which has a high fibre content. This goes into fibre pills, which are big in the health food market. Then there is apple paste, a puree which is dried and dehydrated to make a tasty kind of jelly.”
Along with commercial cultivars such as Cox, Braeburn, Gala and Bramley, 36 hectares (90 acres) of Jonagold have been planted as a good yielding apple for crisps and other dried fruit products.
Charlie says: “We also have more than 150 heritage varieties. My grand- father started keeping them as a hobby. James Grieve is one apple we accidentally put through the drier once and it made the most delicious crisp we ever had. “We have been trying to cross it with another variety with better storage.”
With large-scale production comes the need for more specialist equip- ment and storage, not least the installation of an apple-peeling machine at a cost of £380,000.
Vegetables are grown in small areas on very short rotations follow- ing demand from market customers. Small quantities of many products are growing, including beetroot, chard, sweetcorn, lettuce and 14 varieties of potatoes.
Charlie says: “We are basically growing for weekend markets in London, so we grow in areas that are quick and easy to access with the trailer.
“This is so we can load up and get off as quickly as possible, rather than harvesting, say, an entire 24ha field.
“It is hard on the soil, so after a year of vegetable growing, the field reverts to arable for five years to give it a rest from the constant panning and com- paction caused by the power harrow.”
Opening the doors to the public, the family hosts an Apple Fair at the farm every October and is now attracting 5,000-10,000 people through the farm gate.
Charlie says: “There is a lot of curi- osity about heritage varieties and it brings a lot of interest to the farm.”
Connecting with the public is a key area of interest going forward and Charlie and his family will continue to host many school visits and tell their story.
“We are a little unconventional and they can see a lot of crops in a small area. We do tractor rides, and will be opening an orchard maize.”
The farm shop is in a converted coast house, and Charlie says there are plans to add a restaurant next year.
He says: “We plan to add an education centre. I think diversification is something we are actually very good at, as well as producing an innovative and great tasting product.”