Ambitious farm project set to reform food chain
Two decades ago, Ian and Louise Nelson had £1,000 and no farm. Today, they have a farm complex with a turnover of more than £1.5 million. WILLIAM SURMAN visits the South East to discover how they turned their figures around. Pictures by Jonathan Page.
WE ARE standing in Ian Nelson’s farm shop car park in the Southampton suburbs, looking north. There are massive electricity pylons overhead.
To the east, the once busy docks stand proudly over the River Test. Boats sail along the Solent to the south and cars charge down the A35 into the New Forest to the west. It is noisy and industrial looking – not exactly where you would imagine the birth of an ambitious local food project.
But Ian says this site is perfect to develop an alternative approach to local food to turn the British food chain on its head.
“Whatever we are doing as a nation at the moment clearly isn’t working,” he says.
“The UK food and farming sector has become weaker and less diverse, year on year, for the past 30 years and we have become more dependent on imports every year. We have to change – and that’s where Sunnyfields Farm comes in,” he says.
Ian, 46, was born in the centre of Manchester, not natural beginnings for a farmer but where he developed a gardening passion.
He lived in a cul-de-sac with a garden and loved to grow radishes and beans and, as a teenager, preferred to look after gardens rather than take a paper round.
After his A-levels he spent three years learning horticulture at Writtle College and then worked for two years as a horticulture development officer in Malawi where he was on VSO with his wife Louise. The pair returned to England in 1989, young, ambitious and desperate for a new challenge.
“You don’t come back from spending two years in Africa to getting an average job on a farm growing lettuce or working for Defra,” says Ian.
And in Sunnyfields Farm, a 12ha (30-acre) horticulture set-up in Totton, Hampshire, they found that challenge – first as tenants and latterly as owners.
Always adding value
While Louise is instrumental in the day-to-day running of the farm, Ian is most definitely the visionary.
“The old managers of the farm had just shut it down because it wasn’t making any money. We stupidly thought we could take it on. We had £1,000 between us,” says Ian, who says he had ‘no fear’ before he set about building the business ‘brick by brick’.
“Ever since we started here we have been adding value. We put the farm shop in within a year of starting,” he says.
Although the couple had no help from Government grants, they borrowed heavily to get the business moving and it now stands at a 43ha (105 acre) farm spread over three sites with 35 permanent staff and almost as many tractors.
They grow 80 different crops – typically potatoes and carrots but also lavender and cut flowers – outdoors, in glasshouses and polytunnels.
The farm is entirely organic – although Ian has taken the word organic off his Sunnyfields logo because he thought some customers may perceive it as more expensive.
Apart from the farm shop, they also attend farmers’ markets and run a home delivery service and box scheme, delivering to 1,000 customers every week to most parts of Hampshire and other areas including parts of Dorset, Surrey and Greater London.
They also host their own farmers market every Saturday, which they have run since October 2006. When asked if the market is profitable, it seems the broader picture is more important.
“The aim of the business has always been to have a broad brief and to supply as directly as possible to the end user as possible.”
The core business is clearly horticulture but Ian also keeps 150 chickens, lots of geese and a handful of pigs. “We have many school visits here and it’s great for the children to see a bit of diversity,” says Ian.
But it is not just within the farm business that Ian diversifies. He uses his site for many other wider enterprises.
“Our challenge for 20 years has been to keep adding new enterprises in, expanding our farming activities to some livestock and education but going beyond that too.” says Ian.
The farm now hosts corporate events, weddings, birthday parties and this year it hosted the inaugural ‘Pulse’ music festival, attended by 3,000 people for which all food was locally produced. Ian has also built up a successful business taking demo kitchens to farm shows and conferences.
“Everything we do revolves around our passion for local food and getting people to eat local food,” says Ian.
Spread the risk
Having a wide array of business interests also spreads the risk and 2007-8 were very poor years for the horticulture business as the rain swept in and destroyed crops, the pound weakened, oil prices went up and the recession bit.
“For two years, we had a nightmare and lost money. But we knew we had a strong base and good foundations and could withstand the vagaries of the weather.”
Despite this, profit this year could be back to about £50,000-£100,000 – which is a figure Ian believes is ‘moving in the right direction’ and getting closer to the profit levels of 2005 when he made £165,000.
Ian hopes what he is creating on his Sunnyfields Farm – a one- stop local food and activity centre – will be replicated throughout the UK. Only then will the country have a truly sustainable food chain.
“Farmers’ markets and farm shops don’t work,” says Ian. His statement is somewhat ironic given he has his own farm shop and travels to farmers’ markets up and down the country.
“I don’t say they don’t have a role – farmers’ markets and small shops have increased consumer awareness – but have they contributed to the economic viability of farming? I don’t think so.”
What Ian really wants is farmers to bring their food a short distance to a big farm shop, like Sunnyfields, with space for thousands of people to park their cars.
“If 20 farmers want to build a farm shop, how crazy is that? It is not environmentally-friendly to have people driving out into proper countryside.
“They each have to buy a chiller unit, a meat stand and a till. It is not cost-effective and takes them away from farming. This is where we must collaborate as an industry.”
This is where Ian’s Food and More Project comes in, which he describes as supporting farmers and growers to sell their produce locally and cut waste.
Sunnyfields is an example of how the Food and More project should work. “We are getting support from the local council and we are hoping to invest £30 million into this site.”
Ian is searching for substantial private investment to achieve his goal which he knows ‘will be very difficult in the current financial climate’. “We want 2,000 cafe and restaurant seats, permanent car parking facilities, a 24-hour operating bakery, a butchery, food processing units and a full blown dairy.
“There will be agronomists in offices to give advice to farmers, children coming on farm tours and arctic lorries taking food out to local restaurants.
Food and More
“This is the biggest food and farming project anywhere in the UK,” he says. Sunnyfields will be a ‘medium’ size Food and More project but there could eventually be two or three sites ‘the size of Centre Parks’, says Ian.
Sunnyfields’ location is perfect. “The project would not be practical in a national park. We have big pylons overhead and big roads nearby which is perfect for this project.”
He also has space for a big car park – essential for such a project.
“It’s all about economies of scale. Tesco has economies of scale and when it builds a supermarket it puts in a car park which fills up and before long the till goes ding-ding-ding. Farmers need to do this for themselves.”
One day Ian ambitiously says every county should have one of these projects.
“People want something that works,” he says.
But he admits it will not be easy. “The site needs to be right. The mindset needs to be right. The investment needs to be there. The council needs to be supportive. But we believe our project answers those questions.”
FARMING AT SUNNYFIELDS
- The land operates on a seven-year flexible rotation. For two years, the land is down to a grass clover sward, mowed occasionally.
- A 6ft ‘bed system’ is used where the tractor tyres always travel in the same place creating a wheeling thus keeping the soil in-between free of compaction.
- Nearly all crops are transplanted except root vegetables and sweet corn. Using transplants makes better use of the farm’s limited land area, says Ian, and gives the crops a head start over the weeds.
PESTS AND DISEASE
- There are few problems with invertebrate pests and diseases due to the wide number of crops grown, the diverse rotatations and the biodiversity on farm.
- Main methods are diverse rotation, non-soil inverting cultivation techniques, false seed beds for transplants and stale seed beds utilising a flame weeder for drilled crops. After planting, a customised brush hoe is used with mini ridgers for most weeding, then hand weeded when necessary.
- Most crops are harvested by hand to order. The main exception is potatoes which cannot be overwintered in the ground. The produce is normally harvested into field crates and then taken to the pack house to be sorted and packed.