“What epitomises agrena is their ability to deal with anything,” says longstanding member Richard Larkin. “With one phone call to the team I solved three issues almost instantly.”

A flat tyre on a tractor, a fuel order and hiring a 4 x 4 for a trip into wintry Scotland: there can’t be a more diverse list thrown together for the team to deal with really, but they did. Answers came within an hour: the tyre was changed by the end of the day, the fuel arrived the next and the booking was made for the vehicle (a very smart BMW X5 made the long journey very comfortable).

“I think this is what more people need to understand about agrena,” says Richard. “The diversity of the membership coupled with the incredibly helpful attitude of the staff means that there is no better service for people living in the country. The foundation of the group was by farmers for farmers originally and the value of the service in solving problems is extraordinary.”

Members at the inception of the Ring of Agricultural Machinery in Sussex and Kent, the Larkin family have long benefitted from the machinery ring and lately the centralised purchasing benefits of membership. Over the years many loads of fuel, additional pieces of plant, repairs to equipment and agricultural supplies have come through the group. Most recently though it has been a building project that has brought into focus the great savings (and simplicity of sourcing) that the group has to offer.

In March 2013 Richard and his wife Ali applied for planning permission to turn the drying floor of their modern Oast House into a home. They worked with Tom Ogden of Bloomfields to gain permission under the changes in planning regulations. Tom said: “For Bloomfields, it is always exciting when clients want to capitalise on new changes to planning rules and helping Mr Larkin was no exception in 2013. It was a relaxation in permitted development rights that allowed a change in use of Mr Larkin’s former offices. “These changes meant that Bloomfields did not have to make a full planning application to the council. Using these relaxed rules can be the best way to obtain a residence in rural locations that would otherwise not normally be supported. If the circumstances are right, opportunities are currently also in place that could support the conversion of agricultural and storage buildings to dwellings. Overall, these planning rules are providing an opportunity for increasing values and diversification.”

Working with a local builder they set about reorganising and improving the upstairs space; high levels of insulation have been added, the full height space once occupied by the green hop intake area has now been enclosed and houses a master bedroom suite and office. The list of materials sourced through agrena members Homeleigh Timber is extensive – timber joists, flooring (both sheeting and engineered oak floorboards), external sheeting, insulation, foam fillers, fire rated and regular plasterboard, all dpc, paint, plaster, door furniture… you get the picture.

It was an interesting experience for Wisteria Maintenance, the agrena membership delivering cost savings over their trade accounts for many elements of the build, something that other building firms might find worth investigating. Southern Sheeting of East Grinstead were another agrena member who provided materials, their list included sky light sheeting, side cladding and guttering.

The next phase of development will involve agrena members Tate Fencing. Once the last remaining tenant leaves the industrial units beneath the new house, the yard will be cleared and Tate will be providing new electric gates, timber for raised beds and additional trellis for dressing the side of the Oast. A Juliet balcony is being made by local artisan blacksmith with a hop bine intertwined with the bars, a fitting statement to the origins of this unique home.

Read the full feature