Liquid gold

Features Posted 02/04/19
Kent’s award-winning diversification project, Dudda’s Tun, proves fruitful in saving the family farm.

Farmers, growers and food and drink producers from across Kent celebrated in style on Thursday 7 March 2019 as the winners of Produced in Kent’s annual Taste of Kent Awards were revealed at a glittering black-tie dinner at the Kent Event Centre.

Now in its fifteenth year, the competition celebrated the achievements of many farmers and growers from the county, including, Baretilt Farm, Cranbrook; Biddenden Vineyards, Biddenden; Filmers Farm, Loose; Hukins Hops, Biddenden; J L Baxter, Coxheath; Mockbegger Farm, Rochester; Plurenden Manor Farm, High Halden; and Precious Porkers, Collier Street.

GL Boulden and Sons, with Romney Marsh Wools and Romney Marsh Shepherd Huts, Aldington, won the Kent Countryside Large Farm Award, while Homestead Beef, near Dover, won the Kent Countryside Small Farm Award. Courthope Farm in Shadoxhurst, near Ashford, was also highly commended in the Kent Countryside Award category, which was sponsored by Kent Downs AONB and High Weald AONB.

The winner of the new Farm Diversification of the Year Award, sponsored by South East Farmer, was also unveiled. All three finalists thoroughly impressed the judges having demonstrated the effective development of new, viable businesses on the farm. As well as successfully creating new jobs and boosting the rural economy, the finalists were also praised for their efforts in helping to educate the public about where food, drink and naturally produced goods come from and the importance of British agriculture.

While Laura Brady at the Wonky Parsnip, Chartham, has carved an impressive niche in the fruit and veg world, and Romney Marsh Wools, Aldington, has built an iconic, luxury brand of wool products and is now set to welcome visitors to its high-end shepherds huts, it was Dudda’s Tun, Doddington, who was crowned the overall winner after building a booming craft cider business to keep Pine Trees Farm up and running for generations to come.

“It is incredibly special to have won the diversification award,” said Rob Payne, cidermaker and founder of Dudda’s Tun. “We are a small, modest family farm and have always just focused on working hard to bring in an income. For our story to be out there for people to see, and to be recognised for building a business which has not just sprung up over night with a large upfront investment is a great achievement. We know we are doing relatively well, but to get that little pat on the back from someone else is wonderful.”

A family farm to its core

Pine Trees Farm has been in the Payne family since 1939, when it was purchased as a traditional, mixed farm growing cereals and potatoes, with some livestock. In the 1960’s, the family started to move into the fruit sector, and it was not long until the whole estate was planted with apples, pears, cherries, plums, rhubarbs, gooseberries and raspberries.

In the early 2000’s, following several tough growing seasons and poor wholesale prices, the farm was beginning to struggle and Kevin Payne, Rob’s father, took the difficult decision to sell 20-acres of orchard and grassland to generate some financial stability.

“It doesn’t take many bad years for a small farm to find itself in a really difficult position,” said Rob. “The costs were spiralling, and we needed the cash at the end of the day. The opportunity to sell came just at the right time; it saved the farm at that point and helped to keep it buoyant for a while.” Fast forward to 2006 however, and the 50-acre fruit farm was once again finding it challenging to break even – a difficult prospect for Rob who desperately wanted to become the fifth generation to farm at Pine Trees.

“After going away to university, I ended up getting a job as a sales rep because I knew mum and dad couldn’t afford to have me working on the farm,” said Rob. “The sales company took me on because they thought I would be a good fit and they said they ‘could see something in me’. I was lucky to be given a lot of sales training, which has in hindsight helped the cider business enormously, but at the end of the day my heart wasn’t in it; it was at the farm and I couldn’t carry on.”

After convincing Kevin and his mother Brenda that his return to the farm would be cost neutral, by removing the need for the farm to employ additional workers, Rob also set about finding a way to generate an additional stream of income to help cover the cost of his wage.

The first farmers’ market

With plenty of quality fruit at their fingertips, in late 2006 Rob decided to look into producing bottled apple juice and retailing it alongside the farm’s seasonal fresh produce at local farmers’ markets.

“Our first batch of juice was produced and in early 2007 we attended our first market at Hempstead Valley in Gillingham,” said Rob. “Dad and I would spend the Friday bagging up the fruit and labelling the bottles by hand. Mum would also produce jams and chutneys from what we grew, and she would bake late into the night so we had fresh cakes and apples pies to sell as well.”

At its peak, Pine Trees Farm was attending around six farmers’ markets per month and developed a very loyal customer base who would come back rain or shine to pick up a bottle of apple juice, a mixed bag of apples and a punnet of cherries or soft fruit when the season was right.

“We still have 15 different apple varieties on sale,” said Rob. “We actually planted an orchard with three rows of this and three rows of that just for the farmers’ markets because people wanted the choice. They just love apples and they like the fact that the range is something completely different to what’s on the supermarket shelf.”

As well as being able to ask a higher price for the fruit, retailing direct to the consumer rather than relying on the wholesale markets also helped the farm with cash flow, especially during the harvest season.

“Coming home with the cash, and not having to wait six weeks or more to be paid was invaluable and made the markets exceptionally worthwhile,” said Rob. “Not only could we pay pickers and other labourers weekly, but at the end of the season, when the fruit payments from the wholesalers did come in, it felt like a real bonus because it wasn’t due to go straight back out.”

As time went on, an increasing number of regular market customers started asking when they were going to make traditional craft cider to sit alongside the apple juice. After looking into it and successfully finding a cidermaker who was willing to mentor him through the process, Rob decided to give it a go and, in the autumn of 2009, the first 2,000-litre batch of cider was made.

Initially called Pine Trees Farm cider, the new product was an instant hit with their regular farmers’ market customers. Over the years, Rob believes that the cider has also helped to make the market stall more relevant to the younger generations, while also ensuring that their attendance continues to make financial sense.

“It is always interesting to look back and see how everything has evolved,” said Rob. “I don’t remember how much we used to take, but I do know it wasn’t a lot. Back then we didn’t take our time into consideration because it was just about finding an extra stream of revenue. I think if we were making the same money at the markets today, it is unlikely we would still be doing them, but the introduction of our cider doubled takings overnight and it absolutely makes it worthwhile being there now.”

Today the Payne family attend four farmers’ markets each month, including Aylesford, Bearsted Market on the Green, Tonbridge, and West Malling.

A new face for the brand

In 2010, Rob had to double production to 4,000 litres to keep up with demand and in 2011 this again was increased to 7,000 litres. At this point he decided that the cider needed its own unique brand and a more marketable name.

After doing some research on the local parish website, Rob discovered that the village of Doddington used to be called Dudda’s Tun. Dudda was believed to have been an 11th Century person or tribe who set up a farmstead, which was known in those days as a tun.

With its new trendy appeal, sales of Dudda’s Tun cider really started to snowball and year on year Rob would make twice as much (16,000 litres in 2012 and 32,000 in 2013) and still sell out. Growth only plateaued in 2014 as the production and storage facilities at Pine Trees Farm reached maximum capacity.

“When we started Dudda’s Tun, the cider was produced in one half of our turkey processing plant,” said Rob. “Once the income from the cider surpassed anything the turkeys had ever generated, we decided to stop doing them and I was able to expand into the other half of that building. By 2014, there was cider in every corner of the farm. I was running out of production and storage space but the demand for the product was still growing so, for the first time in 40 years, the farm applied for a mortgage for a new 3,000 square foot building. It was quite a proud moment when that was built because it really brought home how successful the cider is.”

With the exception of the new building, everything has been self-funded with all profits being reinvested into equipment for the first five years. In 2017, to be able to continue to grow in line with customer demand, Rob was able to secure a 40% RDPE LEADER grant to significantly invest in the business, purchasing a mixing tank, flash pasteuriser and bag filler.

“When I came back to the farm we didn’t have any capital to invest in the apple juice or getting the farmers’ markets off the ground,” said Rob. “Everything we have achieved has been gradually self-funded. The first batch of apples for the juice were pressed at Moors and the bottles were returned to us in the apple bins, unlabelled. Eventually, we could afford to have professionally designed and printed labels which would be applied by machine and the bottles would come back in shrink wrapped cases.”

“It has been the same with the cider. We made sure we invested in more tanks, then we upscaled to IBCs, the investment into the equipment we purchased in 2017 has been the single biggest difference we have made to the business and we wouldn’t be able to keep up without it.” Alongside the continued investment into equipment, Rob has always been determined to invest in design and marketing to keep the brand fresh.

“I have always had a vision for the business which hadn’t quite been realised until we rebranded,” said Rob. “It was a revelation because trying to come up with label designs, marketing materials and point of sale merchandise alone was quite difficult. The rebrand was a large investment, and it will continue to cost us money to keep it up to date, but it really does make us look the part and that in turn is further helping drive sales.”

Apples to assets

In October 2013, Dudda’s Tun became its own limited company and continues to be run separately from the farm. The cider business rents the production and storage warehouse, which enriches the farm’s assets, and it also purchases fruit from Pine Trees at the same rate each year, which ensures stability and provides a ready-made customer.

“The two businesses might be separate now but they couldn’t exist without one another,” said Rob. “Initially we were fortunate to have the farm and the apples to make the juice which evolved into the cider; now the farm is fortunate to have the cider business to ensure that we don’t have to sell up and that the family can keep farming here for a long time.”

In line with the growth of the cider business, investment continues to be made into the farm and one of the orchards has recently been grubbed and replanted with a new variety called Sissired. An early variety, it has been chosen for its lower sugar content which will help Rob to deliver a naturally lower alcohol strength cider.

As Dudda’s Tun’s production has increased, Rob has also had to look further afield for fruit and is proud to be able to provide fellow growers with a local home for juice quality apples. However, as commercial top fruit operations move towards ‘supermarket friendly’ varieties there are some concerns over supply.

“We will only ever need more fruit,” said Rob. “This year we had to use a fruit agent for the first time because our customers rely on a constant supply of all our ciders and I was finding it tricky to source certain varieties, such as Discovery, Katy, or Grenadier, which have been grubbed to make way for Gala, Jazz and Rubens.”

Successful sales

In 2019, Rob plans to produce around 150,000 litres, which is now spread across an impressive range of six traditional blends, three fruit ciders, three flavoured ciders, and a special edition green hopped cider.

Bearing these volumes in mind, it comes as no surprise that Dudda’s Tun is no longer sold exclusively at farmers’ markets. As well as selling direct to retail customers, Rob also works with the trade and today numerous pubs, restaurants, farm shops, off licences and festivals stock the range locally, nationally and even globally after Rob was asked to export to a customer in Russia.

“Around 70% of our cider now goes through local micropubs,” said Rob. “That trend was the dawn of a new age for craft producers like us. Locally, as well, there is a trend of people wanting to put Kentish produce first. We have noticed a big increase in the number of pubs who don’t want to serve a cider from Sweden, and the Three Tuns in Lower Halstow, who were one of our first trade customers, has replaced all their other bottled ciders with our range.”

As well as wanting to support local businesses, Rob also believes that customers are expecting more for their money and don’t just want to order a generic ‘commercially produced’ fizzy cider.

“If you are just having one pint, why shouldn’t you expect it to be incredible?” said Rob. “People have tasted what craft cider is capable of and they want quality for their money, so producers have all had to up their game. I want to make products people will enjoy and by having the fruit and flavoured ciders too, we are making the category more accessible to those who wouldn’t normally opt for a traditional, still cider.”

Looking to the future, Rob is ready to keg his first ciders, something which he says customers have “been waiting a long time” for and will no doubt bring new opportunities. The company has also forged a new working relationship with a national wholesaler who has ordered more cider in the first two orders, in the first two months of 2019, than Rob produced in his first year in total.

“It really demonstrates how much Dudda’s Tun has grown,” said Rob. “Now we have got to this size, it is all about volume and by having a distributor we will hopefully make the cider easily accessible to customers which we logistically wouldn’t be able to deal with. We are also looking to take on a sales person in the South East because there is still a lot of room for improvement and with someone working full time the potential is undeniable.”

The development of Dudda’s Tun cider has not only helped to secure Rob’s own job on the family farm, but its continued growth and development is certainly helping Pine Trees Farm to overcome unpredictable growing seasons and fluctuating wholesale prices, and secures the farm’s future for the six, seventh and hopefully eight generation of the Payne family.

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