The new Hutchinsons depot in Canterbury represents a significant investment for the company and gives customers access to an enhanced range of agronomy services and products.
With space for 575 pallets, the impressive state-of-the-art store has been designed to provide growers with the best service in the south of England.
The new depot is just two miles away from the company’s previous Canterbury headquarters at the Barton Business Park, but the new purpose-built warehouse is a considerable improvement on the old premises in terms of space, accessibility and ease of use.
Hutchinsons, one of the fastest-growing UK businesses, has been around for more than 75 years, and in the words of regional director James Short: “This investment is our commitment that we will be serving farmers and growers across the UK for a good few generations yet.”
Still a family business, Hutchinsons has a turnover of more than £200 million and has grown to become the leading agricultural and horticultural input advice and supply company in the country.
James and horticultural team leader Chris Lillywhite both joined Hutchinsons in 1995 and have seen substantial growth and development within the company since then.
James was already a well-established agronomist in Kent and was “looking for a new challenge” at the time. He and former farm manager Chris joined Hutchinsons when the company entered into a partnership with Marden-based Produce Packaging, a move that helped the business establish an important presence in the South East.
Produce Packaging was always a complementary business, with a shared customer base and, within months of buying the packaging company, Hutchinsons had added a crop protection store to the site in Wheelbarrow Park, Pattenden Lane.
The now national Produce Packaging business thrives from the Marden base, which has been extended and improved to service the growth and success of the new business venture.
It was a few years later, in 1999, that Hutchinsons became a major player in agrochemical distribution in Kent after acquiring Kent Crop Protection, based at Barton Business Park.
In tandem with the rest of the business, the agronomy side has flourished in the South East, and the team has now outgrown the Barton Business Park premises and moved to its bespoke new depot at Highland Court Farm, Bridge, near Canterbury.
The distribution depot is one of 23 depots operated by Hutchinsons, which serves growers and farmers from Cornwall to Scotland and from Kent to the West Country.
Although the total scale of the operation, which employs around 380 people across the UK, is impressive, size is not the driving force behind the Hutchinsons operation. “Biggest is not the point,” explained Chris Lillywhite. “We aim to be the best.”
That ambition is supported by figures that show more than half of the workforce employed across the country is made up of hands-on agronomists and others who are directly involved with serving customers.
It is also helped by the fact that James and Chris both have a BASIS Diploma in Agronomy, an award that is based on knowledge and experience and puts the two men among the most highly-qualified agronomists in the industry.
James and Chris have seen solid growth in the company, with the number of South East agronomists increasing from two in 1995 to nine today – five looking after fruit growers and four serving arable customers.
The new Canterbury depot is run by a staff of four, plus seasonal support, and has been built to meet or exceed BASIS standards.
“This really is state of the art,” commented commercial support manager Simon Docherty. “Not only is it big enough to hold an impressive amount of stock, but it meets the most stringent regulations as well as being designed to provide fast and efficient service for customers.”
As well as making sure the depot is well stocked with the right products at the right time, Simon provides vital technical back up to the agronomists on the ground and customers who collect from the depot.
“If we are the crop doctors, then Simon is the pharmacist,” explained Chris Lillywhite. “All the agronomists benefit from his wide-ranging experience and his knowledge of the products we stock.”
Ordering the right products has become increasingly challenging in recent years, with manufacturers lengthening their lead times and often only providing distribution companies with one opportunity to plan requirements and take delivery of a particular product.
Chris explained: “A lot of crop protection products are manufactured in one country and then shipped to another to be formulated before being shipped back here. It means companies are increasingly commissioning only one manufacturing run a year.
“That means agronomists have to forecast what they might need many months ahead – and we have to make sure there is sufficient space to hold the necessary level of stocks.
“This is further complicated by the weather, which can make a significant and unpredictable difference to how much of which product is needed at any particular growth stage in any one year.
“As an example, bud burst in apples is driven by temperature, which means it can vary by up to a month from year to year.”
Against this backdrop, Simon and the agronomists have to plan ahead accordingly and ensure products are available seasonally on the basis of their knowledge and experience.
“Having this larger store makes it easier to hold stock, but it is still a challenge and one that benefits from the level of expertise and support we have in Hutchinsons,” commented James Short.
The company prides itself on having long standing relationships with all the major manufacturers of crop protection products. In recent years, demand for new chemistry has created shortages to UK farmers, but Hutchinsons has been able to supply committed customers with the key products that allow them to control serious disease, weed and pest challenges that can have a big impact on field performance.
“It’s about strong relationships, long-term planning and a high level of knowledge and experience, as well as about being able to future-proof stock levels, which is what this new depot allows us to do.”
As well as providing technical advice, crop protection products and other inputs for vegetables, fruit, horticultural and arable crops, Hutchinsons is a significant seed supplier and offers a range of sundries from strawberry bags and fleece to polythene products.
“Our seed business continues to grow, and with the support of Peter Brundle (seeds commercial support), who is also based at Canterbury, the agronomy team is in a good position to offer impartial advice to customers on variety selection and seed supply,” said James.
“New hybrid varieties, traits and major new investment in plant breeding programmes from the global agricultural research and development businesses will generate knowledge and advice that can be passed on to our customers.
“Hutchinsons agronomists are at the forefront of modern crop production techniques, and looking forward, seeds will definitely complement traditional crop protection advice,” he added.
The agronomy team working out of Marden and Canterbury covers the whole of the South East, and the commitment to quality service is the same for customers with 50 acres of fruit as it is for a 5,000-acre arable business.
Hutchinsons’ family business status is well appreciated by farmers and growers, many of whom are themselves still part of a multi-generational business. Hutchinsons prides itself on taking a long-term view of farming and building strong customer relationships.
The team offers advice on combinable crops including wheat, oilseed rape, peas and beans as well as potatoes, top fruit, soft fruit and hops, including niche crops such as apricots, lavender, asparagus and sweetcorn. It also provides advice on precision farming, soil sampling and mapping and other technical areas relating to modern farming and growing.
“As government institutions have pulled in their horns, so agronomy expertise has come to be housed within established businesses such as Hutchinsons, which has many years of experience – and growing – in the industry,” said Chris.
Hutchinsons also carries out a broad-ranging national trials programme with research aimed at maximising yields, using economic and sustainable farming practices at the company’s regional technology centres (RTC).
“We organise comprehensive trials in a range of locations around the country to provide growers with valuable insights into growing a range of crops under familiar conditions. There are eight technology centres around the UK, including our local one at Adisham, Kent,” explained James.
“Much of our work is focused on solutions for specific local issues, as well as areas of general concern. We like to offer tailored advice based on local trials that tackle local issues.”
The Kent arable team has close working relationships with other regional agricultural businesses, be it machinery dealers, seed or grain merchants or those who are organising local field events and demonstrations.
“Our aim has always been to work closely with respected local companies and offer our mutual farmer customers practical advice and solutions,” he said.
The horticultural team led by Chris Lillywhite includes Simon Docherty plus Bob Little and Andy Bull, who specialise in top and soft fruit, and Rob Saunders, who joined the company this year with a great deal of experience and specialises in top fruit, bush fruit and vines.
Rob is a good example of the high calibre staff that Hutchinsons employ. Hutchinsons’ horticulture director, Mike Hutchinson explained: “Rob came to us with a great deal of expertise and experience gained over 27 years in the UK fruit sector. He is an impressive addition to our already effective horticultural team.
“As a company we offer our fruit growers the best service and the best advice across the whole crop, not just crop protection but cultural, biological and nutritional solutions.”
Also working out of the new depot is the new southern technical manager, Neil Watson. Neil comes with an impeccable pedigree, having worked at ADAS and then NIABTAG for a number of years. He is well respected locally and will bring much to the team.
On the arable side, James Short is supported by Richard Bowerman, James Boswell and David Shepard. “David Shepard joined us as a trainee on our Foundation agronomy training programme, which offers talented newcomers a unique opportunity to become successful in agriculture and horticulture.
“In fact September 2015 saw the sixtieth trainee join the Foundation programme, which is something we are understandably very proud of,” said Hutchinsons chairman David Hutchinson.
“It is very exciting to see the calibre of entrants that we are attracting from a wide range of backgrounds into agronomy. All our Foundation trainees have a passion for excellence that we can translate into the skills required to be a successful agronomist. This is something we have been doing for the 75 years Hutchinsons has been in business and the Foundation is a formalised development of this.
“We recognise that times are challenging for UK farmers and growers but that in no way detracts from our commitment to the training and development of future agronomists.
“We believe, as an independent family business, that we are well placed to see this investment through to provide the industry with agronomists who have the strongest understanding of all aspects of growing crops, coupled with unparalleled agronomy skills,” he went on.
“The whole team, nationally or locally here in the South East, has one goal and that is to deliver the best possible agronomic advice and service to our customers,” says James Short.