Impressive teamwork throughout the business is helping top fruit grower Bardsley Farms Ltd establish itself as a major player in what is becoming a highly competitive industry

While the complementary skills of expert grower Nigel Bardsley and his visionary son Ben are driving the business forward at a remarkable rate, a unique link up between the business and the UNIVEG UK marketing desk is set to change the way the industry works.

UNIVEG UK, part of the Greenyard Group, has played a substantial part in funding a major expansion at the company’s Staplehurst, Kent, stores and packhouse complex in what is the first deal of its kind in the UK.

The ‘vertical integration’ safeguards the supply chain, while the investment by UNIVEG UK has allowed Bardsley Farms to invest in new machinery that is set to substantially reduce its costs.

Central to the investment at the River Farm packhouse is an Aweta pre-grader, a remarkable piece of equipment that is revolutionising the way switched-on growers improve both the efficiency and the quality control around their packing operation.
The four-lane, 26 water channel Calistar grader uses state-of-the-art three-dimensional hyperspectral cameras to check for both internal and external flaws as well as grading the fruit by size, colour, weight and sugar levels.

The machinery allows the apples to be graded and then put back into chilled storage in different categories ready to be packed as required, and makes a huge contribution to the packhouse’s efficiency.

“In the past, we would take apples out of store, pack them and then have to find customers for whatever sizes and grades we found,” explained Ben, managing director of Bardsley Farms.

“We had no way of knowing what we had until we brought the fruit out of storage, and if we found that only 30% matched the requirements of the main customer at that time, we still had to find a home for the rest.
“Now, with pre-grading, when a customer asks for a certain size, we just take what we need out of store because they have already been sorted.”

Ben estimates that the pre-grader, together with a number of other new efficiencies brought in by Bardsley Farms, has significantly reduced the supply chain cost, a saving is passed on to its grower partners in order to grow the business.
The pre-grader is just one of a number of major improvements at River Farm following a £2.8m investment in a 41,000 sq. ft new building designed and built by Wealden AM.

As well as delivering the building and dealing with the planning issues involved, Wealden AM’s Rob Kendall also project managed the delivery of the whole package, which included six controlled atmosphere (DCA) stores, a chilled corridor and a 30% increase in the despatch area at the packhorse.

Rob also ran the tender process to ensure the project was carried out as cost-effectively as possible while allowing the Bardsley family to carry on with their day jobs.

“My father has always had a close working relationship with Rob and so he was the obvious person to go to for this project,” said Ben.

“It was a fairly complex build, partly because Wealden AM had to link in to the existing building but more particularly because of the drainage and inputs needed by the Aweta pre-grader. We designed the building around the machinery and in some cases Rob and his team were working to a tolerance of plus or minus two millimetres.”

Wealden AM once again relied on Simon Kenny of Rural Partners Ltd, for the planning approvals and the technical drawings, a process Rob said was made more straightforward by the fact that Ben already had a clear idea of what he wanted. “All we had to do was turn his ideas into reality as efficiently as possible,” he commented.

The fact that Ben had “a clear idea” of what the business needed reflects his strategic vision of Bardsley Farms and its future role in the UK top fruit industry.

“This development is just stage one of a five-stage growth plan that will reduce our costs and secure our supply chain,” he said. “As a company we have a vision that we believe will secure our future as one of the leading players in the top fruit industry.”

That vision is based on a similar close partnership to the one between Bardsley Farms and UNIVEG UK. Renowned top fruit grower Nigel’s expertise in delivering high quality fruit sits neatly alongside his son’s marketing awareness and vision to create a strong team with a clear focus.

“I believe that in five years time there will be fewer than ten supermarket grade top fruit packing companies in the country,” said Ben. “And I am determined to make sure that Bardsley Farms is one of them.”

That determination is backed by investment in machinery such as the Aweta pre-grader and by far-sighted relationships with UNIVEG UK and with the local growers Bardsley Farms packs for.

“When we boost our efficiency to cut our costs, we pass that on to our growers, and that allows us to continue to grow our own turnover,” Ben explained.

The fruit side of the business, Bardsley and Sons, is headed up by Nigel, who is also storage director of Bardsley Farms – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that the respected grower is never happier than when driving his forklift around the yard.

“Dad has a huge amount of experience in growing top fruit and that makes sure that the packhouse is dealing with a good supply of top quality apples and pears,” Ben commented.

Bardsley and Sons grows around 4,800 tonnes of fruit a year on ten sites within a ten-mile radius of Staplehurst. The split, by tonnage, is roughly 80% apples, 15% pears and a smaller amount of stone fruit.

The six new DCA stores at River Farm take the total to 26, which can together hold 4,500 tonnes of fruit destined for a number of the UK’s leading supermarkets.

The importance of local growers to the business is highlighted by the fact that the packing line handles a total of 17,000 tonnes a year, including plums and apricots and southern hemisphere apples that keep the lines busy in the summer.

The orchards produce Bramley, Cox, Gala, Braeburn, Cameo, Spartan, Red Windsor, Early Windsor, Worcester and Rubens, as well as Conference, Concord and Comice pears.

UNIVEG UK took a minority stake in Bardsley Farms in a strategic alliance that Ben believes represents the future for far-sighted growers. “UNIVEG UK has brought capital, expertise and volume to our operation in a unique venture that has established a vertically integrated supply chain and will drive the business forward,” he commented.

“This is the first alliance of its kind and it is a unique business model that will strengthen our place in the market and bring down the costs for our growers. UNIVEG UK had a strategic goal to increase its UK top fruit division and was looking for a good grower/packer partner to work with to help deliver that growth.

The joint venture was a natural choice and one that suits both parties equally. UNIVEG UK has a great team and a customer base that is strengthening all the time.”

The Calistar pre-grader part-funded by UNIVEG UK’s investment takes more than 100 photographs of each apple as it passes through the machine, an impressive achievement when the line can handle 115,200 apples an hour.

Those images ensure the quality of the fruit is maintained, with those that don’t meet the required standard – which is programmed into the machine by the operator – automatically being routed to the juicing line.

The Bardsley Farms juice is another innovation of Ben’s as the farm seeks to diversify its product base. The juice is already popular in 85 restaurants, farm shops and cafes and an increasing number of other outlets.

With the recent investment just the first stage in a five-part growth plan, Ben confirmed that they are “all geared to supply chain efficiency and reducing costs to make us as competitive as possible while delivering the quality of fruit our customers expect.”

The Bardsley family has been farming at Staplehurst since 1892, when Ben’s great great grandfather first grazed sheep on the land.

Five generations later farming has changed significantly, but reducing costs and improving efficiency and quality is still high on the agenda. “The industry is dynamic, with regular price wars, and so it is obvious that growers need to find efficiencies,” said Ben.

Bardsley Farms now employs 140 people at the height of the season and around 85 during the rest of the year.

After studying marketing and business at university and spending five years in the British Army as an officer in the Welsh Guards – during which he was badly wounded while serving in Afghanistan in 2012 – Ben has a broad range of marketing and people management skills and is putting them to good use at Bardsley Farms.

“My time in the army taught me some invaluable skills that are now serving me well,” he said. “The processes involved in serving as an infantryman on the front line and running a fast-growing fruit business are remarkably similar. Communication, good decision making, foresight, motivation, team building and delegation are all key skills that are directly transferable.”

The joint venture with UNIVEG UK, a revamped management structure and a number of other changes has seen the packhouse’s throughput rise from 3,000 tonnes two years ago to 7,600 tonnes last year and nearly 17,000 tonnes this year.
The company now has a target of handling 30,000 tonnes within five years. “Without this growth, we would not have survived in this very competitive and fast changing market place,” Nigel added “Dad is very proud of what we have achieved, but then I’m equally proud of him for the work he has put into growing fantastic fruit and developing the business over the past 30 years,” said Ben.

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