Andrew Tickle started out working in the engineering and construction industry in the 70s before establishing his first business.
A. S. Tickle (Agricultural Services) in 1983 with a personal loan of £2,500 and overdraft of £5,000. The first machine he purchased was a Ford 5000 and a Bomford hedge cutter. Over the years he built up the contracting business, employing 15 people at it’s peak before selling it in the early 90s.
Since 1995 he has completed several farm diversification projects, including a change of use of farm buildings to light industrial, the conversion of former livestock sheds to residential, and extending grade II listed dwellings. He also converted a steel frame building into a children’s soft play centre as well as diversifying agricultural land to leisure uses and offering services to farmers.
“To me, farm diversification is an on-going method of staying in business, creating assets of value and of updating the relevance of your business plan on a regular basis,” he says.
However with all the ongoing farm projects it occurred to him that he was no longer viewed as a farmer but as an investor developer “it had changed our status and to correct this we had to find something to grow at Johnsons Farm”.
Getting back into farming
Having discounted a number of cereal and vegetable crops due to the impractical access for large lorries and the potential disruption to his neighbours, Andrew narrowed down his list to hops, grape vines, and fruit bushes.
It was decided that fruit from bushes was the way forward – which ultimately led him to discover the Aronia Berry.
They are native to the United States and came across to Europe in the 1950s where they have become an established crop (the EU production of Aronia berries in 2015 was an estimated 60,000 tonnes). To his amazement no-one in the UK has ever heard of them. “I had found my niche crop and market,” exclaimed Andrew.
Keen to understand more about growing the berries, he enrolled himself on a horticultural degree course at Hadlow College, studying the plant science module for which he received a 94% mark on his written exam.
Introducing a new fruit
“There was no point in going small,” says Andrew. In the winter of 2012/2013 he located a nursery in Eastern Poland and imported 2000 plants at a cost of a1 each – enough to cover one hectare. An additional one hectare was planted the following winter to create a viable commercial operation.
Given there was no data to be relied upon regarding the growing of these berries – it was decided not to go down the organic route “this was more of an insurance policy as we had to be able to control pests in the event of an infestation and were also mindful of the need to control weeds whilst the plants were young,” Andrew explains.
The nursery that sold him the plants guaranteed that every one would grow. Planting required the use of a subsoiler and a PTO auger. Plants were spaced at 900mm intervals in 4m rows. In addition a PAS100 compost was used to improve soil fertility.
After planting Andrew was told to cut the stem of each plant off at 8” to stimulate root growth and encourage branching. As promised the plants grew well. It took three years before the plants were mature enough to harvest. Infrastructure and learning to grow, process, and market the berries.
During this time Andrew applied for permitted development to erect some buildings to provide the infrastructure for his new project, but the application was rejected as ‘irrelevant’. That said, when he applied for full planning permission his application was approved, and the buildings are now built and in use.
Learning to grow the berries took three years, but the challenges are ‘on going’ he says. For example the plants are now too big for the harvester and pruning the crop is now being trialled.
A key economic driver of the project was that all the work had to be carried out by Andrew from the tractor seat and so machinery had to be sourced and purchased to achieve this.
Once he had a supply of berries he had to learn how to make his 100% pure Aronia juice and then establish facilities and procedures to manufacture the juice at the farm.
Andrew admits selling his juices has been far from plain sailing as no-one knows what they are or how to use them. Initially he tried getting them into retailers and achieved the SALSA standard in order to present a retail ready product to the supermarkets and local shops but soon discovered there was very little demand for them.
“There was no point in ‘chucking money at it’ to improve the marketing and sales as the iceberg was too big to melt” he says.
Internet sales With his sales options narrowing Andrew decided to setup a website www.aroniaberriesuk.co.uk and online shop with PayPal to sell his juice online across the whole of the UK.
“Fortunately for us the internet exists and we were able to reach our customers throughout the whole of the UK. If you consider that you cannot ‘Google a word you have never heard of’ no-one was ever going to search for Aronia that said, the people who did know that they were looking for Aronia berries were both knowledgeable and keen to buy.”
Andrew now sells only via his website and relies on customers to spread the word to friends and colleagues. He sends all his products out by post direct from the farm.
One tool that has really helped shape decisions has been the reports from Paypal. “They send me monthly reports regarding who to, and how your products are sold and also provide tools to create graphs, trends and profit forecasts”. Since upgrading his website to mobile friendly Andrew has also noticed a large rise in sales (48%) from smart phone visitors.
Health benefits and awards
According to Andrew all the research concerning the properties of Aronia berries concludes that they have very high antioxidants potential and that they can be considered as a functional food containing both anthocyanins and catechins.
Without getting too technical it is the antioxidants that help to maintain cell fitness and health over the years, and it is the high levels of polyphenols (some of the most powerful antioxidants) that are used in medicine to treat certain conditions. You can find out more about this on Andrew’s website.
Andrew is also proud of the fact that in 2016 he won three awards at the UK Grower Awards including winner of the Specialist Fruit Grower of the Year.
In addition to his online sales Andrew sells some of his berries to a soda drink producer in Hackney; they manufacture bespoke sodas for the soft drinks market in the East End of London. The drink they sell with his berries is Square Root “Pear and Aronia” and can be found in ‘trendy’ bars and clubs.
Selling into Europe
With a long list of contacts throughout Europe, including many growers and processors, Andrew attended Tavola Food Expo with Produced in Kent to explore this market, but selling to retail customers abroad has proved to be difficult. Interestingly the trip has helped raise his profile internationally, with two farmers from the Netherlands and Belgium visiting his plantations as part of their farm diversification research, and they have now established Aronia plantations in both countries.
In addition Andrew was recently visited by an Aronia Grower from Denver, Colorardo and as a result of that visit he has been invited across to the Mid West Aronia Growers annual conference, Omaha, Nebraska in March 2020 as the key note speaker.
Awareness via social media
“There are some things I cannot do” he admits. “Regular, interesting posts on our Instagram and Twitter platforms is the main problem”. For this Andrew uses the services of Mandy Smith of RPR (positive communications) based in Whitstable. They have recently launched a new Business Facebook page called Aronia Berries Worldwide to promote the Aronia berry to the wider community, with the aim of ‘reducing the fragmentation in the industry’.
Collaboration with others
Andrew has strong links to two other niche berry growers, including Seth Pascoe in Cornwall who grows Sea Buckthorn and Sophie Sideaway in Worcester who grows June Berries (Saskatoons) with whom he communicates regul
Income and next steps
Andrew says he receives around £10,000 per hectare from his berry business and that for it to make financial sense “you need all the links in the chain”. On the question of expansion he plans to work on improving his current yield which is currently about five tonnes, and has been experimenting with drip irrigation on some trial plots.
In addition to this he manages his industrial lets and the play barn which has been operating for 20 years and brings in a healthy annual income.
Mentoring, the advantages and disadvantage of farm diversification
On the invitation of Alan Harvey, head of horticulture at Hadlow College – Andrew has been delivering a ‘Niche and Novel Crops’ lecture to final year students over the past five years.
“My principle advice to them is understand that there is a world of difference between growing a crop and of selling a product from that crop. Stick to what you know, if you are a competent and enthusiastic grower, then that is what you should do,” says Andrew.
Talking about his own experience selling berries he says “I am my only blockage in my Aronia Berry project. I do not like selling and I do not like visiting retail units to do tastings or presentations. It is simply not my bag.”
Andrew sees his job as to ‘keep the conversation going’ and plans to employ staff when he has gained enough traction to enable him to be confident that the costs of sales can be met by the income from sales. Until that time he says he is happy with the steady growth in awareness and that the sales figures are an accurate reflection of his market place.