Award winning PYO

Features Posted 30/06/19
Set in a prime location, Lower Ladysden first opened its farm gates to the public in 2008. Initially run from the boot of a car, today the popular pick your own attraction is home to extensive modern facilities including a newly constructed farm shop and café.

Chris Kembers’ parents purchased the 35-acre North-West facing farm in 1976. The farm has ‘awful’ clay soil says Chris, who now runs the farm as an award winning pick your own, farm shop and café, and wholesale business. Initially Chris’ father – who sadly passed away in 2007 – grew blackcurrants under contract for Beecham’s before taking a grant in 2004 to ‘grub them up’.

In 2008 Chris was made redundant from his job working for a large top fruit grower and decided to return to the family farm and take it in a new direction. With good access off the B2079 and being ideally situated, equidistant between Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone, the family decided It would be a good idea to open the farm gates to the public.

On advice from a cousin, who ran a successful PYO at Tanyards Farm in Hooe in East Sussex, they set about growing a small area of raspberries and running a PYO from the boot of their car with a set of scales initially, and then later as momentum gathered from a Portacabin. Growth was slow at the start and they found PYO challenging being at the mercy of the elements.

“Looking back it was a very ramshackle setup,” says Chris. Everything was grown outdoors and they found the quality of the fruit suffered after which they started to put up tunnels. Table top strawberries quickly followed and then asparagus – which needed a couple of years in the ground before harvesting. They now grow around two acres of strawberries in table tops and just less than an acre of raspberries in pots. Field crops comprise of eight acres of asparagus, two acres of pumpkins and eight acres of Maize Maze – introduced three years ago to provide an extra attraction to draw more visitors to the site.

Chris’ niece Susie joined the business in 2010, after training and working in catering. She heads up sales and has played a vital role in the growth of the business – managing their 30 or so wholesale customers and also developing the retail side of the business and events such as Halloween night time walks in the maize maze. They’ve also benefited from winning awards for their produce at the National Fruit Show in the past – helping build their customer base. Staffing to date has largely been seasonal – with around six farm staff employed during the summer period, picking and packing fruit, and another six or so staff rotating in the new farm shop and cafe, which opened in June. They will now be open year round and have started working with other local producers to keep the shop stocked through the winter months.

Turnover to date has been relatively small – around 200k last year, split roughly 50-50 between wholesale and retail. Now with the opening of their new building and larger retail space – they are planning to take the business to the next level.

The New Shop

The new shop is just under 200m2 and the total size of the new building is 450m2, which includes the packing shed, office, and small commercial kitchen behind the shop – which they are planning to kit out shortly – to process their surplus fruit into jams and make cakes and other lines for the shop.

“Planning for the building sailed through,” said Chris. They started the project in early 2018 with the building being put up by Lanes Construction in the summer. Chris was impressed with how quickly the building went up and was pleased with how sympathetic their team was towards the PYO, which was running alongside the work last summer.

Chris and Susie managed to keep costs down by carrying out a lot of the work themselves and have kitted out the shop with a lot of their own fixtures and fittings – like old Beecham blackcurrant trays used for displaying all the fresh produce – providing a rustic aesthetic.

The shop stocks their fresh produce and pasteurised fruit juices. With the extra space they are now able to sell other local food and drink. The cafe provides a great space to meet for drinks and locally made cake.

Chris admits that they probably won’t have much of their own produce available in December but added “You never know – my brother did a few turkeys years ago.”

He said ideally they’d love to add some chickens and pigs onto the farm – to feed the Asparagus ends to and as an added attraction for visitors. They have also been experimenting with growing some salads in the tunnels, radishes, wet garlic, and a small area of potatoes.

Water

They source all of their water via an extraction license from the river Teise at the bottom of the valley which is pumped up and stored in a holding tank behind the buildings. They recently upgraded their system with the help of West Kent LEADER funding which covered 40% of the £25,000.00 capital cost.

Wholesale markets

“Within a 20-mile radius most farm shops you go in will have something of ours in them – everyone knows this label very well. We also supply two veg box companies,” said Susie.

They also supply several restaurants within the area with their fruit – “The Smallholding, which won restaurant of the year, The Star and Eagle, the Goudhurst Inn, the Three Chimneys to name a few” she said.

They also supply Harwoods which sells and delivers into a lot of restaurants in London with another wholesaler supplying into Brighton restaurants. Interestingly they have also tapped into the growing craft beer market supplying blackberries and raspberries to Uckfield based Cellar Head brewery.

Packaging

Chris and Susie are passionate about minimising packaging and reducing the amount of plastic they use wherever possible – with only one wholesale customer still using plastic punnets for their strawberries. “Everyone else is now using the pulp punnets which are 100% biodegradable,” says Susie.

They offer a 500g punnet for strawberries and a smaller 250g one for raspberries and some customers “use them to grow seedlings” she adds.

The asparagus goes out in cardboard boxes and is bundled in a bundle machine with a tiny bit of elastic with one of their business cards on it.

One thing they are struggling to find is a small PYO punnet with a handle.

“We can’t find anything to offer for that unless it’s a big cardboard one with a metal handle. So get in touch if you have a good solution,” says Susie.

They don’t offer plastic carrier bags at all and instead use cardboard boxes and brown paper bags. For their juices – which are processed and labelled by Ringdens on the A21 – customers often bring the glass bottles back to be reused.

New branding and website

Chris and Susie recently launched their new branding and farm website which was done by Tim Andrews a friend of Chris who trades under the name Poison Apple. “As you can see we wanted to emphasise the word farm in our new logo – as it is so important to what we are trying to do and offer,” said Chris.

Tim has done a great job on the website. It is clean and easy to navigate on both desktop and smart phone. It provides lots of useful information on the seasonality of the fruit and veg available, alongside helpful how-to-pick guides.

Social Media Marketing

Social media is done in-house mostly by Susie. Over the years they have built up a loyal following on facebook and instagram and she finds it especially useful for communicating with PYO customers, sharing lots of competitions – which help drive footfall to the PYO.

“People are really interested in being involved in what we are doing here - a lot of our customers visit regularly and like to know what our family are up to and how we are moving things forward,” said Susie.

Susie also works with influencers on instagram and has a food blogger event planned on the farm to help spread the word. They also get a lot of interest from mums groups locally that visit the farm and she shares good news stories like how they were voted third in the top PYO farms in Kent and East Sussex recently.

On Facebook they were pleased at how popular their maize maze was last year “we brought in a lot of trade through the maze. It’s really the only thing we’ve done sponsored posts on and it really helped. We had two night maze events and we had hundreds of people that had come from as far as Gravesend and Orpington,” said Susie.

“We charge £6 for a maze ticket” explains Chris “it really helps draw people during the school summer holidays and at Halloween. It’s definitely something we’ll look to invest more in – its just having enough staff to make it work.”

On Brexit Most of the shop staff are all local and the pickers are Eastern European. On Brexit, Chris says “he struggles to keep up with it all but it’s labour that’s the main problem – we don’t export or import a great deal, we don’t supply any supermarkets and therefore it doesn’t affect us too much from that side.”

Extreme weather challenges

Chris Kembers says the weather over the last two years has been challenging – describing how a massive downpour in May washed away plants through a large gully in their maize maze. After which they had four months of hot and dry weather, which not only created problems for growing but also for visitor numbers – “being 30°-35° – nobody wanted to come and pick strawberries in a tunnel or walk around a maze for two hours,” he said.

This year with the hot dry start, they’ve had problems getting a seedbed. “We’d ploughed in the autumn and foolishly left it to break down over winter as you do – but when we came to power harrow the ground had gone rock hard so we didn’t get a particularly good seedbed and since then it’s been really dry,” said Chris.

With the recent wet weather Chris is hoping the rather patchy looking maize maze will improve before the summer holidays.

Chris and Susie both admit to putting in 13-hour days, often seven days a week and that dedication and passion shows in the success of their business to date. With the opening of their new shop they have the perfect platform to take their family business to the next level, while meeting the public’s desire for a closer connection to the origin of their food. We look forward to visiting them again in a year or two to see how the business continues to evolve.


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