Not your average fruit farmer

Features Posted 08/10/19
Ben Bardsley is the visionary managing director at fast growing fruit business Bardsley England, a new breed of company putting tech and people at the centre of their farming business.

Regular readers may recall we visited Bardsley Farms – a long established and fast growing fruit business back in November 2016. Then we featured their newly opened 41,000 sq ft office, pack house and storage facility at River Farm HQ in Chart Sutton, Kent, following a unique joint venture with Greenyard. We caught up with managing director Ben Bardsley again in October 2017 – learning they were a year ahead of schedule and accelerating their growth plans.

Another two years on and I’m sat in front of 34-year old Ben in his glass walled office.

“We’ve done a lot. We’ve become known as the disruptors in the industry – we’re a new breed of company,” he says.

“When I came back to the farm six years ago we were processing around 3,500 tonnes of fruit, this year we will process 36,000 tonnes – which is a 1,000% increase.”

“These numbers showcase us as a different business,” he continues. “We’re now Bardsley England” the culmination of a 12-month rebranding process unveiled back in January Ben tells me.

He explains they have four businesses that feed into the multifaceted new brand which incorporate ‘growing, packing, branding and added value’. All of us work for the brand and not the individual businesses, which has been integral in our succession plan from my father handing over to me.”

“As you can see by the way we operate – there’s not many people over 35 – we’re a young team. My ethos is to fill this business with bright young people, who come in, work hard and develop their roles as the business grows. There were four people sitting out there in 2016, we’re now 32 and full. We’re building a really cool team.”

To recap, Ben is not your average fruit farmer. His dad discouraged him from joining the family business after school, so he went off to University, studying marketing and accounting where he developed his entrepreneurial passion for business and money. He then joined the Army going to Sandhurst where he learnt about people management and leadership – “how to lead through adversity – how to grip a situation that is not going away.”

“I was shot in the chest” while under fire in Afghanistan, he nearly died he says “but whatever doesn’t break you – makes you stronger. I would not change a thing as it’s made the man you see in front of you.”

A man with a vision.

He joined the family business in 2013 as managing director and started to make changes and take the business to the next level. Ben is working hard to build a brand that people want to work for, he name checks Chapel Down and Gusbourne as prime examples of brands with the same impression.

People at the heart of the family business

As well as building a young dynamic team in the office, Ben says he wouldn’t be where he is today without key members of his senior management team, he also highlights the role of his family in growing the business.

“Despite the fact that we are becoming bigger and more corporate, we will never forget our roots as a family business. My wife Georgia, who heads up sales and marketing is one of the directors, my father and my mother are still involved.

“Dad is now taking a step back from the day to day responsibilities but still really enjoys the bits he does well – he’s a fantastic grower and supports the farm team in an advisory capacity – and runs the storage team.”

At peak season the business employs 390 people.

Consolidation and opportunity

“The opportunity has been created by the industry – it’s consolidating at a rapid rate. Especially apple farming. Horticulture generally is too. Land is coming up for sale. We took on Highland Court farm last year which is a big 240 ha block near Canterbury – this gave us a big push in terms of the volumes we can achieve.”

Ben adds there are also smaller farmers selling up: “The market has changed so much – price fluctuations are quite big every year – driven by some of the larger players in our industry.

“To make money in fruit farming you have to be on your game. Number one you need to have significant investment going into the land and you must do the right job in the orchard. You have to have the right supply chain from the orchard to your final customer – which is efficient and trusted.

“We grow just over 10,000 tonnes of fruit ourselves, but we need to grow 20,000 tonnes as soon as possible.”

They still pack for over 30 growers across stone fruit and top fruit: “That third party volume allows us to grow and helps offset our overheads and what we’re trying to do,” Ben says.

“Our 10 year vision is to grow 30,000 tonnes and to get to 20,000 tonnes within the next five years – through a mix of what we’re planting and through acquisition.”

Coupled with a fast growing home market and southern hemisphere exporters becoming less interested in the UK because of the Asian market call.

“The research suggests if you’ve got the same product, same price and one’s got a Union Jack on it – they’ll pick the home grown apple. They’ll not pay more but they will pick it up over an import – which is great for us,” says Ben.

“We grow a very similar product – on par and at times better than the southern hemisphere. We could easily grow the home share from 46% to 65% – that’s not by buying into it based on price – that’s moving into a marketplace that’s naturally becoming available to us.

“From the exporters point of view the UK is becoming less attractive because of the Asian market call – India/Asia is more interesting for southern hemisphere growers – the prices are better – it’s not as tough as we are in terms of the specs and the accreditations you need.”

New and more productive varieties are coming through “there’s a lot happening with clone innovation – Gala is becoming a huge UK apple.”

Yields have gone up too says Ben: “In the last six years we’ve gone from an average yield of 32 tonnes a hectare to 51 tonnes a hectare – which is really exciting for us – our cost of production has gone down nearly 10p per kilo as a result. You can see there’s basic economics at play.”

Extending the picking window and more long term storage is also key.

“We’re finding different clones store for longer. If we want to move into this marketshare of 60% we’ve got to be selling quite a lot of that between April and August.

“We currently operate three storage facilities and then we have third party storage too. In our five year plan we look to invest £10.5 million in storage. We need it. You can’t grow a top fruit business without storage.”

More automation and robotics is also on the horizon.

Ben Bardsley says: “Our Aweta pre-sized grader which we put in 2016, is a great piece of equipment. Sorts by size, colour, quality, weight – the camera makes the decision on quality. That’s had huge efficiency gains to our operation.

“The next stage is automising end of line through pick and place, palletisers – though the plastics issue has slowed things down, as quite a bit of the investment was geared towards flowraps.

“So if the market decides that they don’t want that anymore then we need to react to that quickly. We could see a big move back to loose – or to recyclable packs.”

Robotic pickers are also in the pipeline in the next 5-10 years.

“There are some trials in New Zealand and the USA this year that have gone quite well,” says Ben. “It’s happening across the world and although UK apple production is only a small slice of this pie, we need to be making the right investments now – that’s making sure the fruit is grown in a trellis system so the fruit is presented in the right way for the cameras.

“In terms of spraying I think we’ll be before that – so autonomous tractors, autonomous weeders – all the farm maintenance jobs.”

I ask if they’ll employ less staff as a result of these technological advances. He replies “I don’t think we’ll be reducing our head count – it’s just our head count will be able to do more.”

NFU Whitepaper and reducing pesticides

Ben is committed to building an environmental business and points to the recent environment focused NFU white paper.

“The pressure on pesticides and insecticides is incredible. The number of products we are able to use is diminishing. So we’ve got to get much better at using the natural environment to fight pests and diseases.”

“So we are using natural anthracorides to fight pests. The soft fruit world is very good at this, they put a lot of natural predators into their crop to fight pests and reduce the amount of sprays.

“And as top fruit farmers we need to follow suit – my farming team are challenged with that as we spend a lot of money on sprays, so it’s not only an environmental benefit it’s an economic benefit, you could argue it’s the dream partnership.”

Building strategic partnerships with customers

Unlike some smaller farmers and growers, Ben sees the supermarkets as friends not foes.

“I can grow my business off the back of retailers. They are not the enemy – they are big customers for us and move great volume at a good price. So long as your supply chain is efficient you can make money being a fruit farmer.”

We’re always looking at our cost of production – where do we need to be in terms of price per kilo to make our business work.

When we go into price negotiations that’s the number we go back to and we have our breaking point – we have a number we’re not prepared to go below. It’s not about break even it’s about profits for re-investment – 7% of our trees need to be replaced every year – so that drives a big re-investment cost focussing on robotics, and the new building works.

If you are running at cost of production – there’s no future.

Climate challenges

“One of my biggest risks is water – you need to have the right investments in terms of water. We are quite lucky as we have a lot of reservoirs across our land. My grandfather and father had the foresight that water could become an issue.

The most sustainable way of irrigating is having reservoirs – you’re filling up in the winter and not doing anything to the water course in summer when it’s needed.”

As well as throwing up farming challenges, Ben also sees the change in climate as an opportunity: “Costa del Kent – it’s becoming hotter and drier. We’re beginning to see sun burn, and the risk of hale has gone up. We’ve got to be very aligned to the fact that our climate is changing, and we’ve got to react to that. We are planting varieties that are more suited to a continental climate.”

Food waste and juices

“We’re putting a juice press in here next year as part of our investment program. We should see a massive reduction in food waste as a result. We do have quite a lot of food waste going out of our site due to the cut apples which don’t make the spec or are used for testing going to anaerobic digestion. A cut apple so long as it’s pressed the same day can go straight into juice.”

“We also currently send around 3,000 tonnes of juice apples a year to Copella. Our goal is to do that all onsite.”

Brexit

I ask what Ben thinks about Brexit: “Bring it on I say,” he responds. Ben voted to leave and sees Brexit as opportunity to further build his business.

Changing demographic and NPD

Ben has a discerning eye on future consumers: “We have generation Z coming through. They are a very environmentally and health conscious demographic, very fast moving i.e. they want to eat on the go – they don’t take time to prepare meals and snacks – just grab and go.

32% of the world’s population is generation Z – so I’m building my business towards them as the future consumer. Home supply fits, apples fit. My long-term strategy fits.”

They are not just thinking about how generation Z will buy, they are also thinking about their tastes, and trying to find apples that will satisfy their inclination for sweeter flavour: “My four year old daughter loves Kissabel a new red fleshed variety we’ve planted. Lilibet is a UK green apple – it’s like a granny smith but sweeter. We’re also looking for a UK pink apple.

Out in the fields

Driving round the West Kent based sites of Bardsley-England, we witness the farm team busy preparing the infrastructure for planting more trees – “seeing new orchards go in gives me a real buzz, it’s incredibly exciting; the start of the journey,” he says.

We drive on and see field after field of different varieties laden down with apples. Ben tells me all the trees are GPS mapped and each hectare of orchard has it’s own weather station – gathering data 24/7. All part of the process of farming smarter and producing more food.

Ben is clearly passionate about his business and it shows. He’s also incredibly forward thinking, ready for the future and excited about the possibilities of Ag tech on the horizon.


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