Working at an office desk was never a career option for Colin Cornfield, who fell in love with farming and the great outdoors from a young age. After growing up on his parent’s hobby farm, Colin spent school holidays furthering his passion, working for local growers, and eventually found himself working in one of Bulmers’ cider orchards.
In 1985, Colin realised his dream and purchased Owl House Fruit Farm in Lamberhurst, Kent, complete with a well-established orchard and an extensive range of buildings. Previously home to a busy haulage business, the site offices were converted back into a traditional English farmhouse, which Colin and wife Suzie moved into a year later.
Sitting in the quaint country kitchen, watching a female Sparrowhawk flit to and fro and later walking through the 18 acre orchard with its panoramic views, it was not difficult to see why the Cornfields quickly felt wedded to their new home. Soon after taking on the farm, it became apparent that the orchards needed a great deal of reinvestment. The 34 acre site was then planted with old fashioned varieties, such as Cox’s Orange Pippin, Worcester, Discovery, Russet, Tydeman’s Late Orange, Laxton’s Superb and Spartan, alongside an elderly Conference, Williams and Comice pear orchard.
“It was a very well run fruit farm, but the trees were old and the varieties were based on supermarket demands,” said Colin Cornfield. “We spent a lot of money replanting and needed to find another stream of revenue while those trees were maturing.”
Despite there being very little spare capital to kick-start a diversification project, time spent working for Bulmers had ignited Colin’s interest in cider production and even before moving to Owl House Farm, he had imported a tractor-driven apple press from Normandy.
“Initially we took the press to county shows, events and ploughing matches and held working demonstrations,” said Suzie, whose livestock farming parents were one of the first to open an on-farm butchery, selling home-reared meat direct to the consumer. “People would rave about the juice and were often impressed at how different each variety tastes. They would often ask how long the freshly squeezed juice would keep once they got home, but of course it needed drinking within a couple of days before it started fermenting.”
Seeing that there was clearly a big market for locally produced juice, the Cornfields were encouraged to start making pasteurised cloudy apple juice on a larger scale, naming the range Owlet, the historic name for the farm. One of only three companies in the county to be producing cloudy apple juice, demand swelled.
“We realised very quickly that the real growth potential was in the juice business,” said Colin. “We started with just 6,000 litres in the first year, which doubled to 12,000 litres in the second year and then increased to 18,000 litres the year after. There was a lot of demand but we didn’t have much spare money to really gear up production so we needed to take it slow.”
While the juice business helped to fund the new plantings in the early days, Colin and Suzie both agree that the farm wouldn’t be here today without its on-going success. When the couple first arrived in Lamberhurst there were five fruit farms; today they are the only commercial grower still in operation.
“The fruit was originally grown for the supermarkets and marketed through the Apple Growers’ Association in Horsmonden,” said Colin. “The acreage was small and had we not diversified into juice production, we would have either had to have rented or bought a lot more land, or more likely would have needed to find other jobs.”
Apple juice may be a low value product, but it has added great value to the apples grown at Owl House Farm and by keeping control of production costs and finding markets for the juice, the Cornfields have been able to sustain their business for 35 years.
New English variety
The change in direction, moving away from working with supermarkets, also allowed Colin to reduce the inputs and orchard size, with 18 acres now providing enough fruit for Owlet’s range of single variety and blended apple juices.
“When we stopped working with the supermarkets, we didn’t think we could grow fruit economically for juice,” said Colin. “We grubbed a lot of trees, did less pruning and drastically reduced our spraying regime because we are not trying to grow the perfect apple and small amounts of insect damage and blemishes are not an issue. We have found that we can grow a decent crop with a lot less inputs than we thought and are currently achieving yields of around 60 tonnes per hectare.” While much of this is down to Colin’s attention to detail, interest in pest management and soil nutrition, the farm is also able to pick absolutely everything regardless of size or colour. Focusing on juice has also paved the way for a new English variety called Cheerful Gold. With 3.5-acres planted eight years ago, they are currently one of the largest growers of the variety in the country.
“We love Cheerful Gold because it crops very well, we have been doing up to 70t/ha and it makes fabulous juice,” said Colin. “It is a late variety, the apples are hard and don’t taste that good straight from the tree, but after the fruit has been stored and pressed the variety really comes into its own. It was bred by John Breach and I remember his brother Victor bringing the variety over to be pressed into juice for his farm shop. I took an apple from the bin and thought that it was the nicest apple I had eaten for a long time.”
Across the South East
As well as a single variety Cheerful Gold apple juice, the Owlet range now boasts 15 different flavours including the much-loved Cox and Bramley, Jonagold, and Worcester, which is made from the farm’s oldest surviving trees planted in 1949. Modern blends such as pear and ginger, apple and blueberry, apple and raspberry, and spiced apple have also joined the line-up.
“Our range has grown steadily because we are not big risk takers and we have seen other people who grew too fast, too quickly, trip up,” said Suzie, who developed the rhubarb, apple and strawberry blend after baking a crumble. “We have avoided putting all our eggs in one basket and instead of having one very big customer we work with lots of local independent retailers, such as farm shops, delis, butchers, restaurants and cafés.”
Geographically Owlet’s customers can be found across Kent, Surrey, Sussex and London. With a select few wholesalers, such as Kent Frozen Food, HT White, Albion, and Page and Sons helping to further this reach, particularly into the on-trade.
“We did supply Asda for a while but it wasn’t a very good fit for our business,” said Suzie. “They were very price driven, expecting us to discount all the time and we just couldn’t produce the big volumes at the prices they wanted. After five years, we decided that it was not worth cutting the margins for.”
Controlling the product price is one aspect of diversification Colin is most grateful for. While the business still needs to remain competitive, increasing costs of production can easily be accounted for.
“I have always been frightened by the fact that your biggest customer can decide how much and when they are going to pay you,” said Colin. “Having our own juice brand does also bring a more personal side to the growing business. When I am out delivering, I can develop personal relationships with all the independents, some of whom have been using us now for decades. We also do a lot of in-store tastings which is a very good way of promoting the brand and getting consumers to try the range.”
Triple gold star
Alongside financing the replanting of the orchards, the development of the juice brand has allowed the Cornfields to invest in modern machinery. With the repeated success of the Owlet range, which has twice won the coveted triple gold star in the Great Taste Awards, the farm has also been able to develop a contract arm of the business.
“Our pioneering and experimental attitude did lead to others looking to replicate our ideas but we have been beneficiaries of that in some way,” said Colin. “We now make juice for other growers, people in the local community, and businesses, like farm shops, who want own-label products. Through the contract side of the business we can share a part in their narratives.”
From core to case, the entire juice producing process is done in-house and today Owl House Farm turns around over 350,000 litres of juice. With a busy production line, the business has been able to provide continual employment for locals for over 30 years as well as offering seasonal jobs for numerous casual and harvest workers.
“We have made it work over the years and have gradually evolved the business,” said Suzie. “The labels have all progressed and I feel that we have successfully moved with the times. We are very proud of the Owlet range, which has consistently won a lot of awards. That reinforces that we are doing something right. It is a good local product and when you think of Kent, you do think of fruit. We are proud to be part of Kent’s heritage as a rural and honest business.”
Running a small business may have its challenges, and Colin does admit that diversification can take time away from farming, but as so much produce is made at cost these days, it can be a real clincher for farm survival.
Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic